“Why are dogs always chained in the yard?” “What do people do around here?”
“There’s trash everywhere!” “So many people are missing teeth.”
Questions and comments like these may seem uncomfortable, but they started important conversations in the car after a day on the construction site with students on my La Salle University service-learning trip. I didn’t consider that these conversations would be such a large percentage of the learning during this week-long excursion. Although I should have, since the most productive communication with my own teen boys occurs when we are traveling in the car. My initial intent for taking the trip was assisting students in their service effort, helping repair homes and assisting the needy in community centers. I found the conversations and reflection at the end of a hard days work to be most rewarding. These young adults were learning about community, compassion and perseverance.
To be able to participate in Service Learning as part of my employment was an unexpected bonus to working at La Salle. And I am not one to miss an opportunity. I was chosen to be an adult leader to 22 committed and intelligent La Salle students with Project Appalachia in Harlan, Kentucky. Harlan is one of the poorest communities in the nation due to the decline in coal production, the only industry available in this remote area. The residents we served, receive assistance in home repair and construction through COAP, (Christian Outreach with Appalachian People). This location was a perfect fit for me. My grandfather was a coal miner in the Pocono Mountains, and I grew up working on our family farm in New Jersey, which included a broad range of manual labor that would be useful for the service work we were doing. But it turns out that my years of life experience traveling, working, and just adulting, came into play most often.
Due to limited use of phones, students took notice of their surroundings and how people in rural areas lived, prompting many questions. To the students, the surroundings seemed so different from home. Is it though? Look closer. Litter and decay can become unnoticed due to an adjustment to daily surroundings. Lack of funding for municipal services, infrastructure and healthcare are certainly not only a Harlan problem, it’s a nation-wide problem. And certainly a Philly problem.
Not only did the students have the opportunity to notice and discuss the differences and similarities to Philadelphia, but also to the people. The people of Harlan are proud, hardened, God-loving folk that, despite their less fortunate situation, care deeply for their community and want the best for their children. The only differences between our group and Harlan residents is the comfort and security of financial stability. If students were to talk to our La Salle neighbors, they would likely find the same scenario. Students conversations and interactions with the locals followed us back to the cabin and became extended learning opportunities in discussion and reflection. I believe that these new discoveries will stay with them as they travel through Philadelphia and beyond, continuing to see that all humans deserve respect and compassion. And I am happy to have had an opportunity to be part of this learning process.
-Alicia Sinha-Thomas, Asst. Director, Instructional Design