By Natalie DiMaria
While many people flock to tropical locations to relax on their spring break, several St. Michael’s students decide to spend their vacation volunteering on trips with the Mobilization of Voluntary Efforts (MOVE) program.
Plans for spring break
Some of this year’s trips included the Immokalee Homeless Shelter in Immokalee, Fla., The Christian Appalachian Project in Kentucky, the Covenant House in New York City and several food shelters and an after-school program in Hartford, Ct.
Ten people decided to spend spring break in Immokalee at a homeless shelter working with migrant families. During their service work, the group was surprised by a visit from President Neuhauser.
“I was most interested in getting a sense of what they were doing and how they were responding to it,” Neuhauser said.
The choice of an alternative spring break was easy for the trip’s student leader, senior Dustin Hunter. For the past four years, Hunter has been active on the St. Michael’s campus and this was his third time participating with MOVE’s travel volunteer efforts.
“As a senior I wanted to have the opportunity for a more intense service trip while being able to learn about the culture of a different place,” he said.
“Be flexible,” the group’s motto throughout the week, was quickly tested as they fought through bad weather to make it down to Florida. After two and a half days of delayed flights and reroutes they finally arrived to Immokalee, an impoverished community in southern Florida.
Members stayed in one room at the Immokalee Friendship House, which houses migrant farmers as well as homeless and abused victims.
The living arrangements weren’t spectacular, however Hunter said the military-like living arrangements actually served as a comfort.
“We had the luxury of knowing we would only be there for a week,” he said. “The people staying there have no idea where they will go next.”
The less than lavish facilities did not faze any of the group members. Attempting to communicate with the primarily Hispanic and Haitian residents initially challenged everyone, explained graduate student leader Ethan Bodin, ‘06.
“Most of the male residents didn’t speak English but we would try to get to know them,” he said. “The students who speak Spanish were able to practice and talk with them.”
Throughout the week, the students were able to experience different aspects of Immokalee. Every day half the group would go to local schools or community centers to work with children, while the others helped build homes with Habitat for Humanity.
Junior Jessica Leary had never been to a place like Immokalee. As the week progressed she connected with the locals residents, ultimately changing her original opinions on the migrant families.
“I always had that view that they immigrated here, so they put themselves in that situation, but that’s not the case,” she said.
From November to April the population in Immokalee nearly doubles as migrant workers return for Florida’s tomato season, because the majority of jobs are tomato pickers. Every morning at 4 a.m. the workers meet at a local grocery store to wait to see if they will be picked up only to return at four or five at night.
The workers are paid based on the amount of tomatoes they are able to collect. One bucket of tomatoes earns around 32 cents, meaning a worker must pick two tons of tomatoes to make only $50.
“It feels like another country there,” Leary said. “It’s hard to believe this is happening in the United States.”
Supporting the cause
The Immokalee community has chosen to fight poverty with education. Amid dismal surroundings, the schools stick out like diamonds in the rough. Hunter explained how beautiful the schools were due to the amount of dedication that has gone into Immokalee’s education system.
“To them, education is the key for getting out of their lifestyle,” Hunter said. “It was really cool to see how excited all the kids were to want to learn.”
Halfway through the trip, President Neuhauser surprised the group at a local Mexican restaurant. The students swapped stories with Neuhauser about their trip and other volunteer efforts.
“He told us he was proud of us and it felt like we were getting outside support, it was like all of St. Michael’s was proud of us,” Leary said.
Last year, Neuhauser had been fundraising with alums in Naples while the MOVE trip was in Immokalee. He decided to plan a visit for the next year when he would be fundraising there again.
“It was important to support their volunteer work because it is so much a part of our culture and so much of who we are at St. Michaels,” he said.
Though only a few towns away from Naples, Immokalee struck Neuhauser as a place nobody would inadvertently wander through.
“It’s not the Florida most people think of,” Neuhauser said.
The service trip was not the spring break that most people think of either, but the 11 students wouldn’t have had it any other way. All of the students left Immokalee inspired to share their story and do something about what they had seen.
“I don’t think I could ever lounge at some tropical resort knowing that down the street there is poverty,” Hunter said.
As an undergraduate at St. Michael’s, Bodin wanted to get involved with the MOVE extended service trips, but said he never got the chance.
“It’s about the service, but its more about the understanding of what else is going on and the issues in our own country that maybe you might not be aware of,” Bodin said.