YWCA-Birmingham…Day 3

Hey y’all!

Today we had the opportunity to visit the YWCA of Birmingham.  You may be familiar with the YMCA organization (not only for its excitable dance moves).  The slogan of YWCA Birmingham is “eliminating racism, empowering women”, and the center seems to do just that.  Prior to today, I hadn’t even heard of a YWCA, and since then have found out that they aren’t all like the one down here, but it truly is unbelievable.  We arrived around 9:30 am, and were greeted by a lovely woman with a coolly authentic southern accent.  For about an hour and a half, we got a tour of the facility and learned a lot about the organization.  The center is a place where homeless children from local shelters were given special attention to ensure their eventual success in the public schooling system.  We found out that more often than not, kids that grow up in homeless shelters don’t usually have the confidence to succeed that a child growing up in a two-parent household has.  This in turn led the school teachers to put the children into a special-ed class, which is an issue within itself.  At the YWCA, there are plenty of staff and volunteers at work to make sure that these homeless children are able to learn the fundamentals from reading and writing to basic hygiene necessities.  The place was truly amazing, but it only gets better.  In the upper floors of the ten-story building, housing is available for families who are transitioning, as well as single mothers fleeing abusive relationships, and other circumstances of that sort.  At the end of the tour, we were introduced to Deshaun and Jacob, two AmeriCorps volunteers that work with the YWCA.  This is truly where the day took a turn.  We entered a room adjacent to the gym, unknowingly (well at least I didn’t know about it) about to participate in a workshop that addressed social justice.  Just a sidenote: a lot of times, we as a society regard the term “Civil Rights” as being a black-white concern.  While that is the case, we tend to disregard the fact that “Civil Rights” refers to all the injustices between social groups.  Among identifying the dominant people in “ism’s” such as racism, sexism, religionism, ageism, sizism, etc., we participated in a bunch of activities and conversations that really dug deep at these issues, and more.  Well, I’m about at the part of the day that I wanted to talk about, so haha for unintentionally long blogs.  The best and most real part of the workshop was what Deshaun and Jacob called the “Privledge Walk”.  At this point, we moved into the gym next door.  All ten of us, and Marie (a volunteer for YWCA on her first day) started standing on the half-court line.  We closed our eyes as Deshaun and Jacob alternated reading different statements that we were told to step forwards or backwards a step (based on our agreement/disagreement).  The statements were simple at first glance (examples include “If there were more than 50 books in your house growing up, step forward”, and “if you were often told by your parents that you were smart and/or beautiful, step backwards”), but they definitely allowed for some deep reflection.    At the end of the series of statements, we were told to open our eyes and look around.  We were scattered throughout the room.  As we moved back next door to reflect upon the “Privledge Walk” we had just endured, I was speechless.  I have always considered myself an appreciative person, but I now realize that appreciation goes WAY beyond material things, education resources, and things alike.  It upset me that I hadn’t before truly appreciated the little things, like encouragement from my parents, or the fact that I grew up not in a single-parent home.  What upset me more, was the fact that on a bigger scale, I innately was given more privlege than someone else.  It just doesn’t seem fair, which is the root of the “Civil Rights” issue.  We then wrote letters to ourselves (to be mailed out in a month), just about anything.  In that letter, I made sure to tell myself to appreciate the little things, to take a step back from what probably will be a stressful schedule and appreciate that I am getting not only an education, but a great one, and that I can’t complain about the way I’m living, or anything really.

Well, this was very long, and I didn’t even get to talk about “My Sister’s Closet”!  Hopefully someone else will get to that!

Alana :)


On Tuesday we arrived in Montgomery, AL and finally had nice weather. We decided to take advantage of this and walked around the city to the Southern Poverty Law Center. There we saw the Civil Rights Memorial which honors 40 martyrs of the Civil Rights struggle. Outside a black wall stands with the words of Martin Luther King Jr., “until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream “. Additionally a disk has the names of the martyrs inscribed in chronological order along with other historic events and water stands on the top of the disk. It was a neat experience to run my hands through this water and see later inside the pictures of historic figures from the Civil Rights movement such as Rosa Parks standing in the same place. Before we left we were also able to sign the Wall of Tolerance which is a digital screen scrolling the names of all the individuals who have visited the memorial and pledged to take a stand against hate and injustice. Also in Montgomery we visited the state capital and met an adorable elderly man who gave us a tour of the building. Our last visit in the city was to the Rosa Parks Museum. The museum gave new insight into the famous incident which sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott and also information on other factors affecting this Civil Rights landmark, such as the fact that a lawsuit by four other women, arrested prior to Rosa Parks was the legal end to bus segregation. I really enjoyed visiting Montgomery, the capital and big city for Alabama, even though it only has one skyscraper. It is a nice change of pace from northern cities and offered a wealth of knowledge on the Civil Rights movement in creative ways.


Day 2

We started the morning bright and early with a delicious breakfast prepared by a woman who worked at the Highlander Institute for over 30 years. After breakfast, we watched a short informational video that talked about the Highlander Institute’s involvement in raising awareness and training advocates of civil rights. It was interesting to see the progression of the institute from dealing with specifically civil rights to a wider range of issues including protection of the environment, youth leadership, and others. After our time spent at the Highlander, we drove four and a half hours to Birmingham. Upon arrival in Birmingham, we stopped at the 16th Baptist Church, which was the site of a racially-motivated bombing by the Klu Klux Klan that resulted in the deaths of four young girls. Walking into the church was overwhelming because when I think of a church, I envision a place of security and hope, but in these times black people were not safe in their churches or even their homes. Realizing that they went to sleep at night with no sense of security really brought a flood of emotion. After visiting the church, we crossed the street and visited the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. The museum was more thought-provoking and eye-opening than I could have imagined. I really was able to emotionally connect with the situations and tried to put myself into the events and imagine what both white and black people were thinking and feeling as these events played out. One event that really affected me was pictures of boycotts that took place in what is now Kelly Ingram Park. The Birmingham police confronted demonstrators with firehoses, dogs, and mass arrests. Many of those arrested were children. There were a few pictures of children being attacked by dogs and knocked to the ground with powerful firehoses. This really affected me when I imagined the fear I would have felt five or six years ago in the situation as a kid. The fact that innocent children (and adults) were subject to arrest and violence because of their skin color is just so hard to comprehend. The courage children had to participate in boycotts and attend school despite constant danger amazed me. Even as an adult, I would have been fearful at all times as I am sure many adults were then but the fact that children had to endure these atrocities just affected me in a way I cannot fully explain. Something that really stirred me was a display of a cross that was picked up as evidence from a cross burning that took place in front of the house of an interracial couple during the 1990s. The fact that racism still results in violence measures in recent times bothered me. I often forget that civil rights is not an issue of a past but an issue that still exists today. The museum made me thankful for all the progress that has been made but it also made me aware of how much there is left to be done. This experience has motivated me to want to make a difference in some way. Although I am not sure exactly how to use these experiences to make changes, I want to begin by sharing my experiences with other people and by being more conscious of civil rights issues by reading about current events and initiatives. After a quick walk through Kelly Ingram Park, we headed back to our hotel, cooked dinner, and had reflections. The reflection was really thought-provoking and brought up issues including education systems, socioeconomic status, and race, and how different circumstances interplay to give certain people more opportunity and privilege than others. The day definitely educated us and gave us some answers, but it also brought up many more questions with no simple answers.


Day 1

Well, the car ride was long we drove and drove and drove some more…I’m not sure what to expect from this trip.  We have a great group.  Each person has a very unique perspective.  We arrived at the Highlander Institute at night.  It was pitch black and I went searching for our room.  Once we were all settled in, Bonnie and I searched the facilities.  We discovered the main workshop and center room.  I stood there in all- a circle room with rocking chairs.  The lights were dim and you could feel the reverence of the room.  The circle of the chairs produced energy from the past and I tried to imagine the important people who once sat in these chairs.  I took a seat tried to soak up the atmosphere.  We got the team together for our reflection that took place in the circle room.  Each person sat there and soaked it all in.  It is unbelievable how powerful the environment you are in changes your behavior.  Each person was in the zone and made powerful contributions.  It was empowering and I knew the trip was going to be a success.


Gulf Coast Day 3

Hello from Bay St. Louis Mississippi. It is the third day of our trip and it was also the third work site we went to. Today we worked on a house that that has just begun replacing the walls of the house. We started the day by removing existing dry wall and insulation. This was a fun part of the day because everyone was swinging hammers to remove the dry wall and we were all laughing and having fun while removing the wall. We are all starting to come together at this point in the trip and this event was evident of this. Throughout the day we all changed jobs and worked with different people (except Jordi and Caitlin who were troopers today removing nails from wood remains for almost the who work time; TROOPERS) and getting to know the better. The rest of the day we just did odd chores to clean out the damaged parts of the house in order for us to start rebuilding the house tomorrow. Some of us removed unneeded nails while others swept and removed more dry wall/insulation. We worked so well today that we were able to get out early and catch some much needed sleep.

This has been one of the best experiences of my life thus far. I have meet a bunch of kind, generous, and well rounded individuals whose desire to help others rivals none. This trip has opened my eyes to what has not yet happened to many of the people in the Gulf Coast and what still needs to happen. We are having a blast down here and cannot wait to come home and share our stories, observations, and learnings of the trip.

We are working hard to achieve things that should have happened many years ago.

Cya Y’all.

Michael Klemens

“If you give a man a fish, you will feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish, and he will feed himself for a lifetime.”

Hey everyone!
So we had a very busy day yesterday, and were unable to write up a blog post, so I’ll fill you in on some of the highlights of our day. We started off our morning at a site called Food and Friends, where meals/groceries are delivered to people with medical issues, such as HIV/AIDS. Half of our team worked in the kitchen and prepared meals and the other half delivered the meals. I was a part of the delivery team, which basically meant driving around D.C and going to the person’s house and knocking on their door and handing them their food. The people receiving the food were so appreciative of our services, and always said ‘thank you’ and ‘have a nice day.’ We finished our deliveries about an hour early, so while the other half of the team was still in the kitchen, the volunteer coordinator found another job for us (myself, Monica, Giang, Jason) to do…We made condom kits! That was a party….basically these little boxes that contained the items necessary to facilitate safe sex practices. Food and Friends distributes these kits at different events that they hold. We left Food and Friends around noon, and then it was time for lunch. We decided to eat our lunches outside on the steps of the Basilica of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception because it was absolutely gorgeous outside! After lunch we headed over to the Fishing School to learn about the program that we would be volunteering with for the rest of the week. The Fishing School, as the website states, is “a nationally recognized youth development program…that provides children and families with academic and parental support through two community based centers in Wards 6 and 7 of D.C. The school got its name through the motto that “if you give a man a fish, you will feed him for a day…teach him how to fish, and he will feed himself for a lifetime.” It is basically an after school program that helps promote further learning and provides a safe environment for kids. It was actually recently featured on Extreme Makeover Home Edition if you want to check it out: www.fishingschool.org. So, after getting oriented at the Fishing School we headed over to an elementary school where the program was actually taking place. We worked with 3rd and 4th grade students, and helped with homework, or any problems that they needed assistance with. After the Fishing School, we were all pretty exhausted…kids are very energetic, as many of you know! So, we then headed over to the Old City Cafe for a delicious Middle Eastern dinner. After that we decided to drive back to the CSM site and have our reflection/dinner, where everyone seemed to have a lot to say in regards to our participation in the after-school program, in regards to social inequities in the education system. Overall, I would say it was a very enlightening/successful day!

Gulf Coast

I really enjoyed the service project that our team did today. We were in charge of painting the outside walls and roof of a family’s home. During our time painting, we learned a lot about the family who lived in the house and about the members of our team. I especially think that this project brought our team closer together in so many ways. We have clicked really well as a group, and accomplishing something as large as painting a house in a day was a huge feat. We really felt like we accomplished something together and everyone did their fair share. There were interesting partner dynamics within the painting crew, my personal favorite being Kevin and Megan, as Megan had to coach “the man” how to get onto the roof! There were people everywhere having paint wars, and by the end of the day Liz had taken a shower in paint. Overall, we bonded a lot through this particular service project and we became a lot closer as a whole. As opposed to yesterday, I personally felt like we accomplished something and did something really helpful. Our labor was important and everyone who was supervising us was so complimentary on our work. I hope for the remainder of our trip that we can have experiences such as these!!


One of my life goals is to constantly try to live in the moment, the now. At Lafayette, it can be a little difficult to maintain that mentality when everyone and everything around me is constantly pushing towards graduation and my future. However, being back in Mississippi centers me again, and allows me to get back to what matters most to me: making a difference.

I’ll admit, a few coats of paint and some sanding might not seem like much to some people, and at first it didn’t to me either. Experience changed my mind. To me, community service is about the relationships you form. Whether it be stopping to say “Hi, how are you today?” to a cashier in Walmart, or finding out what motivates full time volunteers down here, or speaking to the owner of the home you’re working on, there is an opportunity to create a connection everywhere we turn. To truly make a difference, I believe you have to ignite a passion in another person. As a team leader, I hope I can do this with my team; but as a human being, I hope I can do this with everyone I meet. I know that I am only one person, but I believe in the potential for change and I believe I have the ability to enact it.

There I go on the future again, back to the now. In Mississippi, life is on a different pace. We have goals for the day and tasks to complete, but time escapes us, and its an amazing feeling. I can get grounded again in what’s most important to me: forming those relationships and trying to make a difference. Right now, all I have to worry about is how I can make someones world a little better tomorrow and maybe a few coats of paint are all they need, or maybe an ear to listen, or maybe a simple hello. Whatever it is, it starts with me, and it starts now.

Gulf Coast Beginnings

Dear Blog Readers

The last 48 hours have been a combinatinon of exciting, hectic, eye-opening, and really fun.   Lets recap.

The group met outside of Farinon at 4 am Sunday morning.  Although everyone was tired from a long night of packing…. there was a silent confidence amongst the group that this trip was going to be legendary. After a luxurious flight to Houston texas (still find it funny how everyone says “yall” in Texas) we crammed onto an airplane the size of a bathroom stall on our way to Mississippi.  I remember in 2nd grade being taught how to spell Mississippi with that rthymic letter song. (M.. I-s-s…. I-s-s….I-pp-I)  Never thoguht I’d make it down here though. 

After a quick check-in… as a group we set off on our first road trip to New Orleans…. or as the locals say…. “noorlands”. Shoutout to our group leader Liz who made reservations at a delicious Louisiana-style restaurant and let the rest of us gallavant around New Orelans while she waited in line for our table.  The majority of us decided to take a walk down the infamous Bourbon street.  Even though I had heard the stories and rumors…… nothing could have prepared me for what I was about to see.  Despite it being 5:30 pm on a Sunday…. you would have thought it was a saturday night summer night.  Adults partying all over the street, strip clubs at every corner, and people in absurd Mardi Gras costumes willing to take pictures with locals.  Beads wrapped around everyones neck and an alcoholic beverage in every hand. As Rocco said best “you can just smell sin in the air”.  Nonethless it was a great experience.  It definitely was something I wanted to see once in my life with my own eyes.

After a quick tour of the party life in New Orelans… it was time to enjoy the finer side of down south.  The restauraunt was ABSOLUTELY delicious.  I could not have dreamed of a more enjoyable meal as I was able to sample Louisiana style Crawfish, shrimp, seafood, and jumbolaya. with all due respect to Lower Farinon Chicken Fritters…. this food was in a league of its own.  After dinner we toured the city as a group and were able to see historical landmarks and witness beautiful scenery out across the Mississippi River.  Despite our flight being pushed back forcing us to have an extremely hectic day rushing around, I still think the decision to go into New Orleans was beyond well-worth it.  Great great experience.

After a 6:45 wake up call the next day…. it was off to breakfast.  Not going to lie…. the food has certainly EXCEEDED expecatiosn thus far (we will see if I’m still saying the same thign on day 4 or 5).  After heading to the worksite… we encountered our project for the week.  At first, when we were told that the house was 90% completed, I was disapointed and thought that there wasn’t going to be much to do.  However, after taking one walk through the house, I would soon realize how much was still left to be done.  I think it finally “hit me” when the homeowner arrived to greet us and provide supplies that this was actually real life.  This poor man and family lost everything and 5 years later is still in the process of gaining it back.  Hopefully… we can all do our part to contribute and help him/his family get back on track.

blog confession:  The group doesn’t know this yet… but I have the “handy” skills of a 5 year old.  Despite being a 22 year old male… I still am unable to correctly turn on an oven, boil water, or cook anything besides Hot Pockets.  But… we don’t need to share that information with Team Gulf Coast just yet.  As the team builder and one of the only students on this trip with a Y chromosome… I need to breathe confience.  I know my squad looks to me for guidance — specifically when it comes to tools and manual labor. lol. nonethless everyone seemed to work really hard today and we seem to really be clicking as a group.  Need to give another shoutout to Megan… who apparently minors in woodshop at Lafayette. absolutely incredible job today.

Overall… I really couldn’t have asked for a better 48 hour start to this trip.  It seems like we have a great group and I am truly looking foward to forming new friendships and learning more about my peers.  I already have gotten close with people I hardly knew last week…. which is great  I signed up on this trip because I wanted to give back to the less fortunate and I believed that this was going to be such a rewarding experience.  Thus far… mission accomplished.

The Beginning: Days 1 & 2

After a little confusion with the time change, a few very unhappy TSA workers, and two plane rides, the Gulf Coast team finally arrived in Mississippi last night. After we unloaded our luggage at LESM Mission on the Bay, we jumped right back into our vans and drove straight to New Orleans.

I had never been to New Orleans before, so I had no idea what to expect. It was quite an experience to walk down Bourbon Street and push my way through the raging crowd, at roughly 5 PM on a Sunday evening. In contrast, Jackson Square was quite a different scene. It was quaint, old-fashioned, and more of what I had expected. It was also very interesting to see how little damage there was in the French Quarter. It was hard to believe the area had ever been flooded, which was NOT the case with  the area where we would be working.

After a scenic stroll through the city, the team had dinner at Acme Oyster House, a typical New Orleans restaurant. My team members were a little more adventurous than I was with their orders. They ate crayfish, oysters, jambalaya, and even a deep fried crab! I don’t eat fish, so it took me a little longer to find something on the menu I would like. After dinner we waited in quite a long line for some delicious bagnettes and headed back to our camp site. Bagnettes are a french pastry, kind of like zeppoles but slightly larger. Aside from the mess of powdered sugar we made in the vans on our ride back to LESM, it was a great night. The group got to bed early so we would be well rested for our activities the next day.

I woke up bright and early this morning, ready to work, at 6:20 AM. After breakfast, we drove out to the house we would be working on for the week. At this point, the house is about ninety percent complete, so we mainly had odd jobs to perform. One of my favorite jobs was cutting and placing the trim for the walls because I got to use power tools to get the job done. I was one of the two people who’d used a band saw before, so I cut most of the trim and taught Dave and Kevin how to use the saw as well. It was a hard day’s work, but there’s still much more to be done.

Our construction supervisor, Rey, informed us that almost all of the funding is gone for Katrina relief. Therefore, it is up to the homeowner to provide funding for rebuilding. If the homeowner does not have sufficient funds to purchase the materials needed to keep working, everything stops. This was very frustrating to hear, but at least we are doing something to help out.

On a happier note, our group is awesome and has been getting along wonderfully! We soaked up some sun at the beach today and are planning a bonfire (with smores!) for later in the week. So far this trip has been a ton of fun as well as a real eye-opening experience. I’m looking forward to finishing more work tomorrow and getting the Clark family out of the FEMA trailer they’ve been living in for the past five years. After today, they are one more step closer to moving into their home!