Milwaukee is an unlikely spring break destination, but for 11 students from the Newman Campus Ministry at Tennessee Technical University it was exactly what they wanted.
From Feb. 4-11, they volunteered visiting low-income senior citizens at Hadley Terrace and the homeless at Repairers of the Breach, the only daytime homeless shelter and source center in Milwaukee. Along with repairing damages and chipped paint, they connected with the residents at each location.
“I expected to clean or paint or fix things,” said Amber Mickinney, a Tennessee Tech junior. “I think the reason I expected that was I think that’s easier. It’s much easier to fix something physically than it is to sit down and talk to someone.”
Clark Jameson, an adult leader, said this trip has been planned since August 2011. He first reached out to the Sisters of the Divine Savior who gladly took them in for the week at their location at 4311 N. 100th St.
He said the students’ primary objective is to do service work and learn from the experience. He learned something, too.
“I’ll always look at someone who appears homeless in a much different light,” Jameson said.
Sr. Pat Russell, a Sister of the Divine Savior and an adult leader, understands the importance of service work.
“If they only came up here and were doing cleaning and painting and never having any interaction, the impact on the students is different,” Sr. Pat said. “Any of those kinds of service projects you want to have some connection with the people you’re serving.”
Those connections helped first-time mission trip participant Mickinney understand difficulties people encounter.
“You don’t know what it’s like to be homeless or the elderly; you don’t know what it’s like to just sit and not have anyone visit for days and days,” Mickinney said. “It’s harder to relate and harder emotionally to grasp and carry on a conversation. But the more we do that, the easier it will be and the more we want to do it.”
Another student, sophomore, Nicole Marerro, saw a different side of life while working at Repairers of the Breach and Hadley Terrace.
“I really wanted to do more physical labor and then I realized, you know, how nice it was at Repairers of the Breach and Hadley Terrace because the elderly and homeless a lot times don’t have a voice,” Marerro said. “ I realized how important it was that they set aside a lot of time for us to interact and speak with each of the community members and residents.”
For Newman president and senior Brendan Blatchford, who had been on previous mission trips, the experience confirmed his belief that more needs to be done for people like the homeless and elderly, to make their lives easier.
“The amount of work that we still have in America, all the homeless, the hungry, I know there’s a lot of people who want to go across seas and build houses and wells and help out,” Blatchford said. “I think a lot of people overlook the fact that we need a lot of help in our country as well. I think it’s awesome that our group has agreed to stay in the states and be able to help these people as well.”
Marerro, who volunteered in Honduras last summer, said, “It’s really easy for me and for other people to go abroad but it’s really hard to serve in your own community.”
With the exception of junior Beth Miller, a Watertown native, none of the 11 had ever been this far north, so the students explored the city. They went to restaurants, ice skating, visited Marquette University and interacted with locals. They said they received the “classic y’all” joke, referring to their southern accents.
Most had never experienced such a large concentration of Catholics.
“I grew up here as a Catholic,” Miller said. “And when I went down to Tennessee I realized that we have, I guess, a community.”
Miller added that some Catholics from the northern states might take for granted the enormous support communities like Milwaukee have versus some southern areas.
Even trying to find a Catholic church within a reasonable distance in Cookeville, Tenn., where the university is located, is difficult.
“Our parish covers five counties in Tennessee,” Sr. Pat said. “We have our church and then we have a little mission church about 45 minutes away.”
Catholics are a minority at Tennessee Tech.
“I would venture to guess there’s probably no more than 150 Catholics in the entire student body,” Jameson said about the school with approximately 8,200 students. “Of which we probably draw 50 of them.”
Their work in Milwaukee reminded them that when they go back home there will be more service work waiting for them.
“We have to make sure that we bring that back into our own community, like, within Cookeville and within Tennessee,” Mickinney said.
Tornadoes in Tennessee have created more homeless people in the area including one Newman student who couldn’t come on the trip.
“There’s so much that we can still be doing when we go back,” Mickinney said. “We have our own homeless problem.”
The students agreed they would go on another service trip again and hope that others do the same.
“I encourage everyone and anyone to do it,” Blatchford said. “It’s been very eye opening.”