Story by Elizabeth Schoof, Staff Writer
Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Schoof
When some people think about spring break, they think about trips to warm tropical destinations filled with sunshine and clean beaches. Other people associate this week off with the opportunity to go home and finally catch up on some sleep. Here at Aquinas, a lucky few are given the opportunity to spend their break donating their time to serving another community.
This year I was one of 12 students who spent their break in New Orleans volunteering with St. Peter Claver Catholic Church. Without a doubt, going on this trip was one of the best decisions I have made since coming to Aquinas.
Our trip started out with driving twenty hours straight in a twelve person van and a minivan that followed closely behind. You might think that spending nearly a day in a car full of strangers would be awkward and you’d be correct in that assessment. That being said, the best way to break awkward silences is through blasting music that people can sing along to. From Grand Rapids to New Orleans, we worked our way through every era of music from the 1960s to 2018. We got to New Orleans on Saturday afternoon and opted to spend the night bonding through rounds of “Spoons” and “The Bowl Game.” Sunday was when our adventure really began.
On Sunday morning, we went to Mass at the parish we were working with for the week. St. Peter Claver is an African American Catholic Church that is heavily influenced by its heritage. Mass there was completely unlike any mass I have ever experienced, and it really captured the essence of what New Orleans is really about. For the parishioners at St. Peter Claver, Mass was about much more than fulfilling a Sunday obligation. It was about coming together as a community to celebrate everything that they have been blessed with. It was about hope.
That sense of hope was one that carried on throughout the course of the week. My teammates and I were told all about the dreams that our students had for their futures. I had the opportunity to work with fourth graders who, after their lessons that week, were eager to become entomologists and ecologists. Other students had plans to create their own fashion lines and move to places that had real snow. The school teaches its students that they come from a long line of outgoing and determined individuals who worked hard to pave the roads for change. My students held a deep knowledge of African American history, but more importantly, they recognized the ability to make a change within themselves.
In my week with the fourth grade class, I taught several lessons on proper adjectives and participles. When I wasn’t teaching, I was going around the room and helping the students on their assignments or even grading papers. I worked with students on nearly every school subject they had, and it gave me a deep appreciation for any teachers I’ve had in the past. Every person who went on this trip did something different, but we all had one common factor. We wanted to lessen the load for the teachers at the school.
On our last day in the city, my team and I said goodbye to our kids. We cried as they hugged us goodbye and thanked us for helping them that week, and we went on to work on our final project.
Homelessness is very prevalent in NOLA. While it is something that is very apparent here in Grand Rapids, it’s much more jarring down there. The city makes the majority of its profits off of tourism which means that there are constantly tourists going through. When you see people dressed in name brands, carrying expensive knick knacks, standing on a sidewalk next to someone holding a “homeless and ashamed” sign, it comes with a significant shock.
As a group, we decided that rather than follow other individuals and simply ignore those who were less fortunate, we were going to challenge ourselves to do better. Two hours before we left, we took all the leftovers we had and we went out and gave them away. As a group, we took the time to talk to these people and pray with them. We pushed past all the stereotypes and negative stigmas and found the people that were underneath. It’s something that all of us agreed to continue to do now that we’re home.
From the little moments such as watching one of my students finally wrap their head around how to divide fractions to the big ones such as when we went to the lower Ninth Ward and saw firsthand the impact that Hurricane Katrina continues to have on the city, NOLA changed a lot of things for me. It gave me the opportunity to delve even deeper into my interests in non-profit work. It helped me to meet a ton of new people and make eleven new friends. Most importantly, it gave me the opportunity to make connections in a strong community that’s filled with hope. I’d like to say that I made a difference in New Orleans, but the truth of the matter is that this city and its people have made a difference in me.
About the writer: Elizabeth Schoof is a sophomore at Aquinas studying English and Communications. She loves reading, writing, photography, and laughing at her own jokes.