By Mara Markinson, Student, CUNY Queens College
Mara Markinson (left) and other alternative break participants welcome students to Smith Elementary School.
About three months ago, a close friend who attends the University of Delaware asked if I would like to accompany her school's Hillel on an eight-day trip to Miami, Florida. I could earn community service hours, and have an inexpensive vacation. I thought to myself, "eight days in the Miami sun!? I'm there!" and I signed up for the trip. What I thought would be a week of sun-tanning on the beach was actually the most influential learning experience of my life.
I joined nearly 100 students from across the United States and Canada in Miami from January 2-9, 2011, to do something really remarkable with City Year, a national service organization. We were among more than 200 Hillel students from 100 universities who did service-learning trips around the world during our winter break funded, in part, by Repair the World.
When I looked at the Miami trip's schedule and realized that the week was PACKED full of service activities, informational speakers, and group discussions, I didn't know what to think. I was thrown out of my comfort zone. We would be doing gardening and mural painting at Lenora B. Smith Elementary School during the mornings, and private tutoring at after-school programs in Dunbar Elementary School and the Overtown Youth Center in the afternoons. Realizing that this trip would bring to life everything I've been learning about in my education classes, I was eager to get to the schools and see if we could really make an impact on the students.
Our work on the grounds of Lenora B. Smith Elementary School was hard. We spent our mornings transforming the school's playground, which was nothing more than a field of dry grass, into the beginning of a beautiful garden. It was extremely hot and the days were long. Fortunately, we were assisted by the City Year Care Force Team, individuals who devote their careers to supporting community service in such places as inner-city schools. They led us in team-building games and "spirit circles" every few hours to keep our positive energy flowing. Thinking of the students planting and walking through their new garden in the near future was also very motivating. It was astonishing to see the progress that we made on the field during five days.
The interior of the school also underwent a complete transformation thanks to our work. When we first walked into the school the walls were completely bare. Over the course of five days, murals and canvases were painted with inspirational quotes, pictures and sayings such as, "Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you'll land among the stars," and, "All our dreams can come true, if we have the courage to pursue them." The vibrant colors that soon filled the walls of the music room, hallways and cafeteria greatly improved the school's atmosphere. One day while I was working on a hallway mural a teacher passed by with his class. The teacher said, "So, what do you think of all these new paintings on our walls?" The students started cheering and saying, "Wonderful!" "Fantastic!" and "Beautiful!"
Posters and murals brightened Smith Elementary.
My favorite part of the day was the afternoon when we worked at the Overtown Youth Center, an after-school program for K-12 students. I was assigned to work with a seventh-grade student named Jamiya. On the first day, we worked on a paper for her Civics class. I realized that Jamiya was copying the words directly from the Internet. When I asked her if she knew what plagiarism was, she did not. I asked her if she understood what she was writing about; she did not. I was determined to teach her a way to think of her own ideas and put things into her own words. We played a game where I would say a sentence or two, and she would have to re-word what I said. It took her a while in the beginning, but she soon got the hang of it and began using Web sites as resources rather than copying from them. Soon, her paper was finished, and she did an excellent job. She could hardly wait to hand it in! I also taught her several tricks on the computer and helped her with fractions in math. I felt so successful, and I couldn't help but tear up when I saw the look on Jamiya's face when I had to tell her that I wouldn't be returning the following week. It was at that moment that I realized the true impact I had made on her. I had only spent a few afternoons with her, and had gotten to know her talents, weaknesses, and personality so well. I can only hope that the lessons I taught Jamiya will help her to succeed in the future.
During Shabbat we were visited by Hillel President Wayne L. Firestone who talked with us about the Jewish concept of achrayut, responsibility. He taught that each of us has a responsibility to the Jewish community and broader world, and that there is power in both the collective and the individual taking ownership of the task of tikkun olam, repairing the world. He urged each of us to carry our "empowering and humbling experience" in Miami back to campus this semester.
After spending a week helping those in need, I am motivated to continue to serve such communities. Opportunities such as this alternative winter break should definitely be seized. My time in Miami supplemented everything that I am learning about in school and enhanced my points of view on community, social justice, volunteerism and education as a whole. This experience was life-changing and confirmed my desire to become an educator.
Mara Markinson, of Bellmore, New York, is a junior studying Mathematics and Secondary Education in the TIME 2000 Program at CUNY Queens College. Reprinted by permission from the New York Jewish Week's Campus Confidential.
Hillel sponsors immersive trips.
Miami community center welcomes students.
University of Delaware blog.
Hillel City Year blog.