It wasn’t a trip to Miami Beach, Cancun or the shore. It wasn’t a week at home lounging around watching “Maury” or “Jerry Springer.”
My spring break was spent right here in North Philadelphia.
Last year during spring break, nine other students and I served the local community through a service-immersion program called “Spring Break Stay.”
The program, offered through Temple’s Office of Community Service, is a unique opportunity for students to spend their spring break working with local community organizations to understand the relationship between students and the surrounding Philadelphia community.
For one week, I lived in the house of a community leader on Diamond Street, a far cry from a beachside resort or hotel. I spent most of the week cleaning, painting, gardening and babysitting at the Woodstock Family Center, a women and children’s center located on Norris and Woodstock streets, just a few blocks off of Main Campus.
The center provides temporary housing for homeless families and single women. “You spent your spring break with homeless people?” my skeptical friends would say.
However, I challenged that idea. I asked them what images popped into their heads.
“Do you think of a scraggly-haired, bearded man pushing a shopping cart containing a few rummaged items? Do you imagine a poor beggar on the busy street shaking an empty coffee cup at you?”
“Everyone’s stereotype is that homeless people are lazy, or that they don’t take care of their children, or that they do drugs or alcohol – which I have never done,” said Jane, a resident of Woodstock
“Everyone [that is homeless] is not a drug addict or an alcoholic.”
The reality of the situation goes beyond the stereotype. According to the National Center on Family Homelessness, families with children are among the fastest growing population of homeless people, and 42 percent of those children are less than 6 years old. I immediately felt an emotional connection with the families that lived in the shelter.
For the short time I was there, the coordinators, staff, workers, residents and children opened up their arms and invited me into their community, their family. I was blown away by the strength of the mothers, their passion to succeed in life and their infectious love for their children.
But what went beyond my connection with the families was how I reevaluated myself as a student, as a neighbor and as a human being. As Temple’s enrollment continues to increase, so does the number of students who live in off-campus housing. There is an undeniable clash between the residents of North Philadelphia and students.
I’ve learned that I am first and foremost, a guest in this community, and I hold myself responsible to do my part.
My challenge to you is to step up and take action. Sign up for service-immersion programs at the Office of Community Service located on 1509 Cecil B. Moore Ave., second floor. The photo story you see is my simple attempt at showing the beauty of the lives that have touched mine at the Woodstock Family Center.
Neal Santos can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.