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Over Spring Break, Students Serve with a Smile

March 10, 2020

Twenty-one St. John Fisher College students and four staff members served during an alternative spring break trip to Knoxville, Tennessee, through the Office of Campus Ministry. Emma Pyrak ’21 shares her experiences on the trip, engaging in service, learning, and friendship.

Twenty-one St. John Fisher College students and four staff members served during an alternative spring break trip to Knoxville, Tennessee, through the Office of Campus Ministry.

The trip came after many months of planning and preparation by the peer ministers and Campus Ministry staff. Traveling by charter bus that departed at 5 a.m. on Sunday, our group spent the 14-hour trip getting to know each other, playing games, and singing songs. 

Most mornings we were up early to arrive at the organizations. At the end of each day, we spent time reflecting in small groups, where we shared our experiences of the day. On top of service activities, our week included early morning runs (optional), late night basketball games (not to be missed), and religious experiences (a way to reflect and share gratitude for the trip).

“I expected us to keep to ourselves when we were not doing service work, simply trying to get some homework done,” shared Sarah Storsberg ’23. “However, we spent our night’s together singing, dancing, walking or running to the lake, playing basketball, and so much more.”

Monday morning, we rose bright and early to head to Great Smoky Mountain National Park. There, we learned the importance of discovering, understanding, and conserving biological diversity with the National Park Service and Discover Life in America. Then we hit the trail on the Trillium Cross Trail to help with their “Snap It and Map It” project using the iNaturalist app to catalog species living in the park. The app allowed us to upload photos we snapped in the park with a pinpointed location of the species in the park. In the days following, some students received feedback from scientists and naturalists through the app identifying the species.

Later on Monday, we headed to the Riverside Catholic Worker Community. We divided and conquered to complete various physical tasks. Together we moved, spread, and leveled gravel to build a driveway. Others dug holes to house support posts for berry bushes and grape vines. Alyson Witt ’23 and Kevin Havens ’23 turned into a friendly competition: Who could dig a two-foot hole faster? Others helped prepare a meal inside for everyone to share after working up an appetite. We ate with community members and children, learning the stories of how and why they came to the Catholic Worker House.

On Tuesday, we went to the Beck Cultural Exchange Center, where the President, Rev. Renee Kessler, shared with us the work they do to preserve African American history and culture. After her remarks, we had the opportunity to tour and explore the museum and worked on two archiving projects, cataloging obituaries and funeral programs of African Americans in the Knoxville area. For many, these documents are how they remember their loved ones and keep track of their genealogical lines. The initiative has been spearheaded for 35 years by a 99-year-old volunteer who works to archive the obituaries and funeral program of every African American Knoxvillian possible.

On Monday and Tuesday, our experiences were less hands-on and more oriented around community engaged-learning. By becoming educated while doing work, I learned that service is not only doing physical labor or tasks, but we can serve immensely by becoming educated and aware.

On Tuesday afternoon, Fr. Kevin Mannara, director of campus ministry, guided us on a tour of the gorgeous Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, the seat of the Catholic Diocese of Knoxville. Our visit fell on the two-year anniversary of the dedication of the cathedral, which has a peak height of 144’ in the dome.

Before heading back to the retreat center, we ventured into downtown Knoxville to visit some stores and experience the city. Back at the cabin, we enjoyed some friendly competition on the basketball court before sharing in a homemade Taco Tuesday Family Dinner, followed by more basketball.

Students sort items at a service site.

Wednesday morning, we shared in a pancake breakfast to fuel up for our 12-hour day at Knoxville Area Rescue Ministries (KARM). As a large group, we toured the entire facility, learning about their mission and their ministry equation of Rescue + Relationships = Restoration. In small groups, we then prepared Blessing Bags, which are handed out to guests upon arrival. We also cleaned the courtyard and prepared the concession stand to serve guests during their City Nights Program, and sorted and hung donated clothing. We then prepared and served a meal to overnight guests and enjoyed conversation during dinner service. In the evening, we experienced the City Nights outreach ministry, where they open their outdoor courtyard to share worship, communion, and community three evenings a week. We offered fellowship to the guests, serving them a warm cup of coffee and food.

Thursday, we split into groups to serve at three programs of the Catholic Charities of Knoxville: its elder care facility, crisis pregnancy center, and group home. I was fortunate enough to socialize with the residents of the elder care facility, Samaritan Place. We enjoyed playing board games, conversation, and lunch. MacGregor Winegard ’22 and Sarach Mancini-Goebert, liturgy and music coordinator at Fisher, spent an hour and a half performing by request for the residents. To top off the afternoon, Chris Coriddi ’21 accompanied the others on the harmonica for a rendition of Piano Man.

Another group spent the day at the Pregnancy Services Center, where they prepared 1,000 baby bottles for a diocesan-wide fundraiser. They also unpacked, sorted, and prepared 5,000 diapers for distribution to families. They learned of the services provided by the center, including parenting and nutrition classes.

The third group served at Horizon House, permanent supportive housing for adults with chronic and severe mental illness. The group prepared and served a meal, where they socialized with the residents. They also cleaned and organized the house, and did some yard work.

To conclude our week, we enjoyed a hard-earned meal together at Sweet P’s BBQ.

Our week in Knoxville was not a college student’s typical spring break on a beach blowing off steam. Nonetheless, many of us found our stress was relieved during our week. We were not consumed by the thoughts of homework to be done or other responsibilities, but were present with each other and those we were serving.

“I think service activities are so relaxing because they allow us to be present and minister to those in need. Helping others is much more important and satisfying than doing work for your own benefit,” shared Andrew Procopio ’22.