By Rachel Haim
As the end of winter break began to inch closer, I continuously asked myself, “why did I sign up for this?” Nothing sounded better than one more week with my friends from home, sleeping in until noon and home-cooked meals. However, I had committed to an Alternative Break trip, and I could not go back on my commitment.
Loading our luggage into the university vehicles on a very chilly January morning, I prayed our final destination of Memphis, Tennessee would be even slightly warmer than Madison. I was pleasantly surprised with the 70 degree weather, which was unheard of even in the southern city. We spent our week volunteering in a newly founded charter school in the heart of Memphis. Because of how new it was, the founder, along with other teachers, chose to recruit students from the surrounding neighborhood. Working with the kids was fantastic. They were all rays of sunshine, and it was heartwarming to see them learn a new word or solve a math problem on their own.
I was also struck by the passion I saw in the staff of the school. We were fortunate enough to get to spend time with the founder Mike McKenna, who was a teacher for many years on the East Coast, but moved to Memphis to start a family with his wife. It was inspiring to see how passionate Mike was about bringing a better education to the inner city, where hundreds of kids are falling behind, and left with less than adequate teachers. Mike’s philosophy revolves around quality teachers. Every day teachers are growing and practicing different strategies to become more effective in the classroom. We got to see behind the scenes of the work these (mostly young) professionals put into their job. During their prep time, they would be practicing reading techniques with an instructional coach, collaborating with other teachers or caring for a child who needed a band aid or had behavior issues.
The passion of Memphians did not stop there. I had the opportunity to meet Don and Linda, a retired couple who decided to move to the city from the suburbs to be closer to the people they wanted to help. This selfless couple converted their garage into a tutoring area with curtained off sections to help multiple kids. Every Tuesday, Don and Linda, along with local teachers and volunteers, help the neighborhood kids with their homework. The couple said that sometimes up to 20 kids will show up.
The Tuesday we were there, I stayed inside their home, helping a group of five boys with a reading program they were doing on an iPad. Don and Linda bought several iPads and headphones so the kids could increase their reading proficiency. One of the boys I was working with was at a first grade reading level, but he was in the fifth grade. This was shocking to me and reinforced the importance of what Don and Linda were doing for these kids. They were welcoming them into their home, taking the time to help them, getting to know them, feeding them dinner and encouraging their success. All of this, solely because they wanted to help.
Many people want to help, but often times, we don’t do much about it. Maybe we donate to a charity or volunteer occasionally at a soup kitchen. Don and Linda saw an issue that bothered them, and they did something about it. They did not give excuses. They moved to the heart of the problem, to actually make a connection with these kids. As someone who was only there for a short time, I saw this connection in full swing, with an unwavering mutual love and respect between Don and Linda and the children.
I feel so grateful to have met such compassionate and welcoming individuals in Memphis, but I am also lucky to have made connections with seven other UW students. There is something about driving in a car for nine and a half hours that forces you move on from casual and generic talking points, so we found ourselves digging deeper and discussing our individual relationships, fears, goals and passions. We all engaged with each other and listened, the type of listening where you are in the moment and engrossed in what someone is saying.
As cliché as it may be, I also learned the importance of adventure. Although I did not travel anywhere too far or extravagant, going out of my comfort zone on this trip allowed me to explore a spectacular new city, gain unique perspectives and meet inspiring people.