Seeking Change Locally

By Laura Hancq
January 23, 2012

Service immersion trips can take you around the world or across a bridge. For the three Cabrini faculty members who traveled to the Romero Center in Camden, N.J. over the winter break to participate in the Urban Challenge Retreat, they can certainly attest to the fact that you do not need to go abroad to make an impact.

Dr. Caroline Nielsen, assistant professor of biology and environmental science, Dr. Maria Elena Hallion, associate professor of exercise science and health promotion and Courtney Smith, assistant professor of history and political science, chose the journey over the Delaware River to Camden for their Mission Integration Immersion Trip as part of the President’s Initiative. Faculty who are part of the initiative got to choose between Camden, New Orleans and Guatemala.

For Nielsen, the choice to go local was an easy one; it was about living up to her own teachings. Nielsen teaches an Engagements with the Common Good course about sustainable communities which has a focus concentrated in local purchases and the importance of valuing and protecting one’s own community. She, like her fellow retreaters, found they could make an impact very close to home.

All three of the professors found truth in the words and theories of Vince Gallagher, author of “The Violence of Globalization,” who came to speak at the Romero Center. He believes there are many ways people can make a difference in a world today.

“It’s just like our speaker said, in a world where so many people are suffering, there are so many ways to help,” Nielsen said. “This experience reminds us there are so many opportunities to make things better.”

Nielsen left feeling that any positive act that she did there helped make it a better place. Hallion agreed with this sentiment, especially through her positive memories of the incredible staff and volunteers she met. She credits them as having the most impact on her.

“I met such wonderful people, the staff at the Romero Center and the volunteers and staff we met at the places we went, it felt great to know that I could make their day different or better because I was there,” Hallion said.

The retreat consisted of visiting the Martin Luther King Jr. Child Development Center and the New Visions Homeless Day Shelter. At the MLK Jr. Center, the teachers enjoyed time with the children while helping with the hot lunch and snack. The children are between 2-5 years old and their parents have to be working or in school as well as have financial need. Smith cites the center as being her most memorable experience because it reminded her of where her mother used to work.

At New Visions, Nielsen, Hallion and Smith sorted and packed toiletry bags and helped make and serve lunch. They then went back that night from 9-10:30 to make dinner for those visiting the shelter that night. Both Nielsen and Hallion recalled that aspect of the retreat as being incredibly memorable because of the people they met. They recalled a young woman named Marie, a volunteer cook, who is a law student but still finds time to serve.

“Marie really reminded us about priorities,” Nielsen said. “She’s an example of how we say we are too busy to help but she is a law student and still finds time to help.”

Part of the Urban Challenge retreat includes a day where the participants live on $3 a day for food. Each person gets a dollar for each meal and then the group has to go food shopping to feed their makeshift family. In this case, the professors had $9 to eat for the day. The group will go down in the history of the Romero Center as being the only one to ever buy tea bags.

“It’s one thing to see it, it’s another to experience it,” Nielsen said. “It’s so easy to say others should do things differently but until you live it, you don’t realize how hard it is.”

Smith was fascinated by how we think about the price of food and how little $3 a day is, especially when it comes to feeding a family. It is without doubt that the participants will not take fruits, vegetables and good meat for granted again.

Having completed the retreat, Nielsen is very focused on finding a way for Cabrini students to participate and to change their perception of the nearby city.

“Urban Challenge is not an opportunity for you to change Camden but for Camden to change you,” Nielsen said.

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Laura Hancq

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