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Harvard University students came to Decatur for an alternative spring break to perform service projects, such as building a fish pond at Woodmeade Elementary School. Blake Johnson, left, Casey Bi, Chelsea Gordon and Rachel Singh add and spread gravel at the school Wednesday.
Daily photo by John Godbey
Harvard University students came to Decatur for an alternative spring break to perform service projects, such as building a fish pond at Woodmeade Elementary School. Blake Johnson, left, Casey Bi, Chelsea Gordon and Rachel Singh add and spread gravel at the school Wednesday.

A break from
the norm

Harvard students spring into community service in Decatur

By Patrice Stewart
pstewart@decaturdaily.com ˇ 340-2446

They originally came for service projects, but what keeps them coming back is the Southern hospitality — served up with fried chicken, creamed corn, potato salad, green beans, tomato slices and homemade biscuits.

The group of nine Harvard University students here for their "Alternative Spring Break" this week will help Decatur, too.

Harvard students Casey Bi, left, Luke Messac, Paul Katz and Clem Wright maneuver a 500-pound boulder onto the fish pond at Woodmeade Elementary School as part of their service projects during 'Alternative Spring Break.'
Daily photo by John Godbey
Harvard students Casey Bi, left, Luke Messac, Paul Katz and Clem Wright maneuver a 500-pound boulder onto the fish pond at Woodmeade Elementary School as part of their service projects during "Alternative Spring Break."
While this is the fifth year of the past six that Harvard students have come to Decatur on their spring break, these students had never met Phyllis Maloney from Decatur, who started this project, until last weekend. The Harvard graduate, who is now a Yale Law School student, came home for a few days and met them Saturday during a dinner at the home of her parents, Mark and Gay Maloney.

"This project now has developed its own life at Harvard, separate from our daughters — and largely due to the good hospitality here," Gay said. Their daughter Margaret also participated in the project for several years while she was a student at Harvard.

The project lives on because of diligent work by other students, such as Harvard student team leader Paul Katz from Pittsburgh, Pa., the only one from last year to return.

Two years ago, no group came from Harvard, but Katz said he didn't want to let this spring break project die, so he decided to organize this year's trip.

That was fairly easy, he said, because of the groundwork Phyllis laid in earlier years, along with the Decatur Daybreak Rotary Club and other supporters in Decatur making arrangements. He advertised the project around campus "to get a more diverse group to come."

"I got an e-mail from Paul about it and decided to come," said Elisha Rivera, an American history major from Baldwin, N.Y. "I've found you really get immersed in the culture when you're taken into someone's home for a week."

"Decatur is much better organized than many other communities in terms of service and volunteering," Rivera said.

Katz ended up with four other guys and four young women and, with support from foundations and other backers, they drove South in a van donated for the week.

"We get to know more about the culture this way, with host families, than if we were staying in a church basement and eating at McDonald's, as some groups do," he said.

"And the work schedule (typically starting at 8 a.m.) shifts our usual hours to healthier ones."

On Monday they built a wheelchair ramp requested through the Volunteer Center of Morgan County for a new paraplegic to use after leaving the hospital. Tuesday's tasks included seeing the Habitat for Humanity outlet store and a house started recently, and going to the Boeing plant to tear down shipping crates so the wood could be made available by the store.

Wednesday included reworking the fish pond at Woodmeade Elementary School and touring Plastic Recyclers. They helped the Neighborhood Christian Center on Thursday and Friday.

In between, the students got to visit the Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, St. Bernard Abbey in Cullman, the historic town of Mooresville and the Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham, along with a river cookout, pool party and other fun.

The Rotary Club, which acts as the group's sponsor in finding host families and setting up work projects, invited them to its annual dinner. B.B. Perrins, Big Bob Gibson's and other dining events plus breakfast at City Café, soul food at Dot's restaurant in Hillsboro and a Southern buffet dinner at Limestone Bay Trading Co. in Mooresville left them almost too stuffed to talk.

Katz, who visited five countries in the past year, , plans to spend the summer in South America. The Alabama trip offers students historical perspective at places like Mooresville and the Civil Rights Institute, said Katz, who is a sophomore studying the history of Latin America.

Chelsea Gordon, from Long Island, N.Y., heard about this spring break service trip in her dorm. While her parents weren't happy they wouldn't get to see her over her break, she said, "I've talked to them this week and told them what we are doing and how much fun we're having."

Gordon, a chemistry major, spent last summer in Namibia, Africa, with WorldTeach. Florida is the only state she had visited in the South, so she welcomed this opportunity to see more of the country.

Blake Johnson of Houston, Texas, said his parents are from Louisiana, so his family makes regular trips there and he helped with Hurricane Katrina cleanup there during spring break last year.

"I like seeing the magnolias again," he said.

Luke Messac from Troy, N.Y., likes that part, too.

"Coming from cold and windy March in Boston to see the azaleas blooming is like a dream," he said. "And the people are real friendly here. In New York, people don't speak to each other, so this is a great departure."

"Everybody's so welcoming and supportive here," said Clem Wright of Londonderry, Vt.

Other members of the group are Casey Bi from Broomall, Pa., and Rachel Singh and Isaac Meister, both from Boston.

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