Brewton-Parker Students Serve and Learn in Toronto

MOUNT VERNON -- While many college students fled to warm sandy places for their spring breaks, 14 Centennial Scholars from Brewton-Parker College spent a week learning a life's worth of experiences from those whose goals involve finding or providing primitive shelter or a simple meal in a less-privileged and cold environment.

The students and four sponsors spent spring break in Toronto, Ontario, by serving in the inner- city area of Canada's largest city. Through a host organization, the Center for Student Missions (CSM), the Brewton-Parker students served the homeless and poor by working with several existing ministries in the city.

Students who made the trip were: Alston Carter, Duston Griffin, Josh Hartley, Jason Hughes, Shannon Jones, Keely Kump, Jonathon Pryor, Lane Snyder, Michelle Stokes, David Symons, Courtney Thompson, Keith Wade, Thomas Weaver and John Wolters.

Sponsors were Sandra Clay, director of enrollment support services; Michael Aoa, director of student activities; Luke Stokes, plant operations maintenance worker and his wife, Nicky.

The trip's activities followed the motto of the servant leadership program, "Developing Servant Leaders for the Marketplace."

During the weekdays, students made beds in a homeless shelter, worked and served patrons in soup kitchens, sorted donated clothes at used clothing distribution centers, and sorted, boxed and labeled donated food at the Greater Toronto Area Central Food Bank. They also spent time talking to the workers and patrons in the drop-in centers during meal times.

Through two evening activities arranged and led by the CSM staff, students experienced living on the street. On both nights, the temperature was in the lower 20s or teens, and the students were on the street for about three hours.

Through the activities, the students learned that in every encounter with a homeless person, they must speak to the person in a way that preserves his dignity as a human being.

"The activities proved to be especially intense-learning experiences and impacted the students deeply," said Clay, who coordinated the Toronto trip for the Centennial Scholars. "For example, wherever a homeless person is sleeping IS his home, and he should be approached as if we were his guest."

On the first night of the evening activities, CSM city hosts took the students to a Christian youth center and explained the teenage runaway problem in Toronto. Students learned about some of the problems that cause young people to run away and the kinds of problems they encounter when they arrive in a large city with little money and no one who knows them.

The students then were divided into small groups, given $2 and taken out on the streets. They had to find a way to feed themselves, locate a place they could sleep, find a place they could go to the bathroom after midnight and decide who they could trust.

During the de-briefing afterward, they expressed feelings of anger, frustration, fear, and vulnerability as they had tried to cope with the enormity of their need and the lack of options.

On the following night, the students went out on the streets in small groups to hand out sacked meals to the homeless. The meals consisted of a peanut and jelly sandwich, two cookies, an apple and a juice box.

The students had prepared 75 meals, but because the night was so cold, police and firemen had picked up the majority of the people and taken them to shelters for the night. About 50 lunches were given out during the three-hour trek.

"Going up to a stranger to offer food was a humbling experience as we saw how little the people had and how grateful they were for a cold sack lunch," Clay said.

The Brewton-Parker delegation also participated in a French-English Congolese worship service and experienced eating such international cuisine as Somali and Afghani food.

After spending a week of exciting and humbling experiences in Toronto, the Centennial Scholars and their four sponsors returned to Mount Vernon with more compassion for those in need and a greater desire to make a difference where they are.

"Next year as seniors, these same students will identify a need in the local community, plan an outreach to meet the need, enlist volunteers, and lead the project to completion," Clay said. "By the time they graduate, they will be equipped to go out into their world, wherever life may take them, and be a catalyst for good in their communities."

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Brewton-Parker College Centennial Scholars Program students (from left) Duston Griffin, Shannon Jones, Keith Wade, Jason Hughes and Thomas Weaver (far right) work with a Toronto Center for Student Missions guide (second from right) in sorting items in the Helping Hands Food Bank during their spring break trip to Toronto in early March. (Photo by Michael Aoa)