English teacher Jill Donovan, one of the faculty chaperones on the Montgomery Plan's trip to Chattanooga, considers why a group of students and teachers would willingly commit to a service trip during their spring break.
Being Present: Reflections on the 2016 JBS Spring Break Service Trip
by Jill Donovan
we must be present to win
That ten or eleven week stretch between winter break and spring break is, for most of us, the toughest stretch of any school year. The weather is unpredictable, viruses abound, and students and teachers alike have to tap into deep reserves of willpower and resolve simply to meet the daily challenge. So what would inspire a group of students and teachers willingly to sign up for a spring break service trip? What would make any of us volunteer to trade five days of beaches and/or sleeping in for community service? This was my third such trip and I think I am beginning to know the answer: deciding to offer a chunk of one’s own time and energy in service to others offers benefits beyond ordinary pleasure.
we must be present to bond
Nearly as soon as we pulled out of the Clayton Road lot on Sunday, March 20, I knew that this trip would be special. Although it was a gray and wet morning with a light snow falling on the magnolia and cherry trees, the 19 students on the bus were already abuzz with enthusiasm and goodwill. Our trip down to Chattanooga was seamless: I traded dozens of stories with fellow chaperones Shannon and Tammy and Rachael, stories that we would never have had time or occasion to share at school. We talked about our families, we talked about movies and politics, we talked about cooking—I never once picked up my book. By the time we stopped for lunch at Subway in Paducah, Kentucky, the kids were completely comfortable with one another: our 7th and 8th grade students sat at tables with the juniors and seniors, the 9th grade girls sat with teachers, nobody complained about the long lines or bathroom wait, I talked with Rick and Kwayera and our bus driver, Vanessa—our off campus bonding had officially begun.
When we arrived in Chattanooga and checked into our lodgings at “The Crash Pad,” a very hip and modern and highly sustainable hostel near downtown, I wondered initially if the tiny common space was going to accommodate all 25 of us. As it happened, the economy kitchen and spare living room and chilly outdoor fire pit areas offered the perfect locations for bonding. Making and eating breakfast, washing our dishes, sitting on wooden benches around a 4’ x 4’ square coffee table, packing lunches, hanging out on the side-by-side kitchen stools to talk and sing and play games in the evenings—all of these activities involved literal shoulder rubbing—proximal bonding.
We spent Monday fanned out on three different city blocks in east Chattanooga helping elderly and/or disabled residents with their yard work. My group mowed grass and trimmed hedges and gathered debris and tidied garden spaces for several extremely grateful folks all while telling stories. I learned things about Gabe and Emily and Karson and Xavier and Nandini and Elle and Lou and Mia that I am unlikely to have learned at school; they, in turn, learned things about Tammy and me that we might not have shared in other contexts. We ate our sack lunches while sitting in the grass; we admired the puppy across the street; we held Hefty bags open for one another; we traded yard work strategies, and admitted how tired we were by early afternoon, but also how satisfying it felt to improve the look and feel of five families’ homes.
On Tuesday we spent a few hours helping out at the Chattanooga Area Food Bank. While it should have become tedious to spend two hours affixing not-very-adhesive labels to several hundred silver cans of green beans, it was not tedious at all. The talks I had with my labeling tablemates—colleagues Alex and Rick and students Kwayera and Emma and Kayla, made the two hours feel like ten minutes. We did a lot of laughing while labeling, and the stories we had just heard from the director about the 165,000 “food insecure” adults and children the Food Bank helps to feed each year, made the simple task feel more than worthwhile.
On Wednesday we spent a few hours at the North River YMCA making sandwiches and putting fresh broccoli into tiny sandwich bags for the community’s afterschool snack program. Teamed with Karson and Xavier, my 7th grade students and advisees, I had a blast filling several milk crates with tied-off baggies of broccoli. The conversation never flagged, and I learned more about these young students’ hearts and minds than I could have in several years’ worth of Wednesday advisory sessions.
Up before the kids, a highlight for me was the pre-dawn neighborhood walk I took all four mornings with Shannon and Tammy. Colleagues before, I now consider both of these women my friends. We must be present to bond.
we must be present to help
Rachael Barnes, our tireless leader, did an extraordinary job organizing this trip. She is a natural and superb captain. But as with any out-of-town excursion, there are surprises. The JBS bus began to malfunction shortly after our trip up Lookout Mountain on Monday afternoon. This turn-of-events could have been a major wrinkle indeed, but here’s the remarkable thing: both visible and invisible helping hands just kept finding us. Both the Pastor and the Property Director at Chattanooga Baptist Church seemed completely delighted to offer us the use of their coach and transport our crew on Wednesday, the directors at the various places where we were scheduled to tour or volunteer on Tuesday and Wednesday seemed fine with adjusting their schedules and timetables, Ed Philip and Stance Eskridge quite willingly gave up a day and a half to do a 14-hour down and back drive to Chattanooga to rescue us. Would all of these minimiracles have occurred if we had been on an ordinary field trip? Possibly. But the fact that we were there to help, were there to serve, seemed to draw out the helping instinct in others.
On Wednesday we spent 90 minutes touring the Chattanooga Community Kitchen, a whole block of downtown services aimed at helping the homeless population. In the past few decades, the once dilapidated downtown has rapidly gentrified—a wonderful thing in most respects except for one—extremely low income individuals who need to live on a bus line now have no affordable housing—hence, more homelessness. In a remarkably encouraging display of unity, thirty Chattanooga churches have teamed up to offer an impressive amount of assistance including three meals a day/365 days per year, medical and mental health care, a family shelter, job training and placement in the center’s recycling station and thrift store, and transitional housing. They even have a foot and ankle clinic. “Several years back,” the director explained, “a man came in and said he felt called to wash the feet of the homeless . . . he started with a bucket and soap.” They now have a full-fledged medical office space, with two foot washing stations and shelves full of medicines and supplies, all staffed by nursing students from UT Chattanooga. “Sometimes they start crying as we take care of their feet,” the Director went on, “most have never been touched with such compassion.” When I was telling one of the staff members at the YMCA how impressed I was by the Community Kitchen, she said “it’s hard to even volunteer there the waiting list is so long.” We must be present to help.
we must be present to share
Each morning, Rick Sandler made oatmeal for the kids; two of the mornings Tammy made pancakes and French toast; Alex always had snacks to share because he said he knew from football trips “that kids always underestimate how hungry they’re going to be”; Rachael bought everyone hot chocolate and Moon Pies; Tammy surprised us with cinnamon rolls on the last morning; Shannon sang along with every song that Maddy and Gabe and Lily launched; Alex unloaded the dish sanitizer at least seven times; Shannon surprised Rachael with a thank-you gift and cards signed by everyone on our final night; Nandini doubled back one evening to apologize for not saying goodnight to all of the adults the night before; Maddy filled every spare moment with sunshine and laughter and a kind of contagious energy. I could go on and on. It’s impossible to take part in a trip like this without becoming acutely aware of the power and impact of sharing—sharing food, sharing chores, sharing stories, sharing laughter, even sharing struggles. Alex and Rick and Tammy and I spent at least 20 minutes one evening sharing stories about the death of parents. I imagine that Maddy and Lily and Gabe—who sat and absorbed these stories with a kind of reverent attention—learned something in those moments that they would never have learned in class. We must be present to share.
we must be present to find joy
Back first from the YMCA on Wednesday afternoon since we were shuttling groups in two vans, I spent an hour playing Anomia with Kwayera and Xavier and Karson. In the van on the way home, I pivoted in my seat to play Taboo with Maddy and Emily and Lily. On the final morning, while waiting for Ed and Stance to pick us up, Shannon and I tossed a Frisbee for more than an hour with Sam and Eliot and Maddy and Lily. On Tuesday evening, Maddy taught me how to play four chords on her ukulele. On Monday, while touring Rock City, we rounded a corner and happened upon a college student choir from the Czech Republic. Standing on the overlook, this charming group performed three songs in German and one in English for a very appreciative mix of tourists from all over the country and potentially the world. We bumped into several young men from this group at the Chattanooga Train Station later that evening and they immediately offered us another song. Spontaneous bridges built among and between people, spontaneous laughter during games of Scrabble and life-size Chess and 3-2-1 Contact, my teasing Shannon about forgetting to loan me her shampoo, our delighting in the thoughtful comments the students offered during the final night’s fire pit debrief—all of these are examples of the joy inspired by being present in the current moment. “Be here now,” Rick reminded us one evening, capping a conversation about the giant photograph of free climber Alex Hummold affixed to the wall in the Crash Pad living room. Being “here” with our students, with my colleagues, with the young hostel staff members, and with all of the people we met along the way, was indeed a path to joy. We must be present to find joy.