Flint Michigan Alternative Spring Break

This spring break, Student Life, in collaboration with the Construction Design and Management Program, organized a service trip to Flint, Michigan, with the Firestone Center. Thirteen Parkland students worked with five different nonprofit organizations over three days during the break.  Below, Emily Grumish, a psychology major from Champaign, recounts her experiences on the trip.

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“Thinking about doing a service-learning trip for spring break? Have you heard about the crime rate in Flint, Michigan?”
“You shouldn’t go there, it’s way too dangerous.”
“Emily, have you ever used a power tool before? How are you going to help construct a house?”
“They don’t need your help. You would just get in the way.”

These responses from my peers almost stopped me from going on one of the most life-changing experiences of my life! Around four weeks ago, I was offered the opportunity to head to Flint, Michigan, on an Alternative Spring Break service-learning trip hosted by Parkland College Student Life. I was nervous to sign up for this trip because I had never done construction work before, or even held a hammer.

The trip was initially focused toward college students with electrician and construction backgrounds. As a psychology major, I was worried that I didn’t have the skills to volunteer on a trip like this one. Before this trip, I also had a limited knowledge of the turmoil that resulted from the Flint Water Crisis.

On April 25, the town of Flint will have been without clean water for four years.

The first time I heard about Flint, Michigan, was in my Child Psychology course I’m currently enrolled in. I remember hearing about some of the children having unexpected cognitive and behavioral difficulties due to the lead pipes that have been poisoning their citizens for years. This honestly sickened me. Full of questions, I started researching the history of Flint using different books and journal articles.

I was surprised to find that Flint is one of the poorest cities in the United States. I noticed a common thread while looking at different news articles. These news articles failed to explain the great work being done to give hope to the city and missions. This work was providing strength to citizens who were beginning to give up faith because they could not even support their families. I decided that a great way to learn about these missions was to actually go volunteer at them.

After meeting and discussing the hard work being done in Flint with Student Life Activities Program Manager Josh Clark, who was also one of the coordinators and chaperones for the trip, I was ready to embark to Flint, along with Josh’s co-chaperone, Parkland Marketing and Public Relations Staff Writer Ruthie Counter, and 13 other Parkland College students.

On the way to Flint.

Going into the trip, I made the quick assumption that the students going would mainly be young men in construction majors. I was happily proved wrong. Our team included a mix of men and women who varied in ages, background, culture, and college majors. However, we all shared one common goal: We all wanted to give back and make a difference in any way possible.

Accommodations and Tour. We stayed at The Firestone Center in Flint. The Firestone Center was created by Social Impact Philanthropy and Investing (SIPI for short) to continue the impact made by Father Tom Firestone, who helped form the Alternative Spring Break Program that houses researchers, students, and families that want to help the community there.  SIPI provided us with a platform to get to know many of the different organizations so we would be able to provide our services in multiple ways. The Firestone Center provided us with a place that felt like home, with warm beds to sleep in and a hot shower, after putting in a day of hard work. We were also provided three meals a day. Did I mention that the two chefs, Melissa and Crystal, prepared some of tastiest meals I’ve ever had?

On the first day, we went on our bus as Firestone Center manager and coordinator Annie Stoltman gave us a tour of the city. First, she showed us the pretty parts of Flint that included well-constructed homes. As we passed the buildings, we heard about the University of Michigan–Flint, Kettering University, and Mott Community College. I had no idea Flint was even a college town. We were shown a building that is being turned into an early childhood development center. Annie made the comment that it’s very interesting that it took a water crisis for Flint to start focusing on creating these centers. I found her thoughts on the topic showed that some powerful transformations can occur after hardship or tragedy.

As we started heading to the east side of Flint, I started to notice how many houses were caving in and/or had broken windows. As we reached the city’s north side, the houses looked like they were hit by a tornado, because many of them were collapsing. I started noticing that CP was written on almost every house, which stands for “cut power.” There were also spots where there were no houses at all, because they had been demolished. Annie explained that Flint was the city with missing teeth.

The missions we worked with in the next following days, are helping to fill some of those missing teeth. Some of the organizations we volunteered with, included Sylvester Broome Empowerment Village, Franklin Ave. Mission, Flint Eastside Mission, St. Mary’s, and Habitat for Humanity. We decided to split into two groups, so we could accomplish work with all of the organizations.

Sylvester Broome Empowerment Village and Franklin Avenue Mission. While volunteering for two days at the Sylvester Broome Empowerment Village, I learned about the afterschool problems that are challenging education and leadership in the city, and how the Broome center would help address them. I helped paint a classroom and clean up a gym that had been fully painted in only two days. One memory from that place, that will remain stuck in my mind forever, was seeing a smiling little girl walk into the center, with her mom in hand, to tell us about how excited she was to be able to take dancing lessons there. She was provided an outlet to explore her love of dancing through the help of this center.

The other half of my group was at Franklin Ave. Mission that first work day, where they were building walls in the church. I felt empowered when I witnessed the women using power tools with confidence, as they developed new skills constructing the wall. Many women in our society today are held down by gender stereotypes that say that women are too delicate for construction work. I’m happy that our group could crush those assumptions.

Eastside Mission and St. Luke’s Rennovation. I was later given the opportunity to learn about the Flint Eastside Mission as we worked on their future women’s alcohol and drug treatment facility. It was incredible to see the impact we made in such a short period of time. The group that worked inside the house finished early and then helped the rest of the group pick up the trash and sticks off the lawn. While we were helping at the Eastside Mission, the other half of our team helped St. Luke NEW Life Center fix up a house on the east side that a family will be able to move into in a few more weeks.

Habitat for Humanity Build. On our last full working day, while at the Habitat for Humanity house build, I had the chance to bond with all my fellow coworkers, all construction volunteers from the community, as they shared stories and jokes.

They were great at teaching us how to use the tools to help us gain skills that we never had before. I was so happy to hear that the Parkland College group accomplished everything on the daily check list during the house build.

Hearing Presenters and Making Friends. Some of my favorite memories included our dinner time at Firestone, where we had an outside speaker come in nightly to shed light on the work being done in Flint. This inspired me to pursue future service work. With each speaker, we went around the table introducing ourselves and sharing what we learned that day. Everyone had a different perspective. I was never expecting to form such a strong connection to students who were strangers to me just the week before. They were some of the most positive and open-minded people I had ever met, so knowing that we would be leaving Flint soon and going back to our busy lives made me feel kind of sad.

On our last night, we sat around in a circle to reflect on the trip. We were asked to explain our experience in one word. I said “perseverance”, because that is exactly what the people of Flint have shown. They were able to come together, despite their hardships, and begin the process of repairing this city. I could not have chosen a better place to spend my Spring Break, and I look forward to returning to Flint soon. As quoted by SIPI founder Steve Wolbert, “if you’re interested in making a difference and adding value to a community, there’s no better place to do it in than Flint.”

[Josh Clark is the activities program manager for Student Life at Parkland College.]

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