Alternative Spring Break in Detroit: A Student's Perspective

March 20, 2009

Spring Break 2009 proved to be a bit different for me this year. As part of Alternative Spring Break, eight students and I traveled to Detroit, Michigan for a service learning opportunity. Service learning involves not only engaging in a series of community service projects, but immersing ourselves in a situation to gain full understanding.

We boarded three planes to the motor city not to “do community service”, but to return as messengers of the city’s plights and attempt to understand this portion of the country facing such an uncertain future. Partnering with various organizations throughout the week to understand the plights of Detroit residents, our days allowed us to aid the Eastern Michigan University Child Development Center, Capuchin Soup Kitchen, Friends In Deed and the Avalon Housing project – all organizations providing  services (ranging from child care, housing, clothing and even furniture) to low-income residents in the Detroit area. We were also fortunate enough to partner with the John Lennon Educational Tour Bus to create a documentary about our experiences in Detroit. While I expected to return to sunny Florida feeling renewed after engaging in a community in need, never could I imagine the effect of visiting this essential American city would have upon my paradigms for good.

My week in Detroit will be engrained in my memory for years to come. Not only did the stories of the citizens compel me, but our cultural experiences exposed me to some of the greatest parts of American culture. In six short days I visited three cities, tried Greek food for the first time in Greek Town, used a coat rack, witnessed Ford F150s in the making at the Ford Rouge Plant, met a former GM pilot, sat in the seat of Rosa Parks at the Henry Ford Museum, ate at Zingerman’s (the quirkiest deli in the United States in my opinion), visited the University of Michigan, learned about the Detroit from residents Marcus and Nu-Nu while eating lunch at the Capuchin Soup Kitchen, attended a comedy show, cheered at a Piston’s game, and saw snow.   Most importantly, I gained a respect and passion for this city that will allow me to defend it for years to come.

My most distinct memory of the trip was my reaction while driving through Downtown Detroit. In the comfort of our SUVs, we gaped in shock at the blocks upon blocks of abandoned homes. Balconies hung by threads of wood as ceilings remained exposed and charred. Residents roamed the streets and sirens blared in the background as I snapped pictures with a feeling of numbness. It was difficult to grasp that this was not a third world country. This is Detroit – the city of innovation where Henry Ford brought invention to life and a region housing some of the most advanced research laboratories in the United States had now begun to decay.  I could not believe this was my country; it simply was unacceptable.

My learning experience in Detroit provided a perspective unattainable through news reports and textbooks alone. I look forward to seeing where projects will take me in the future and which area Rollins will allow me to explore next spring break.

-Ellease Bender (Class of 2010)

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