Piety Hill Musings

The ramblings of the 52 year old Rector of St. John's Episcopal Church of Detroit. Piety Hill refers to the old name for our neighborhood. The neighborhood has changed a great deal in the over 150 years we have been on this corner (but not our traditional biblical theology) and it is now known for the neighboring theatres, the professional baseball and football stadiums and new hockey/basketball arena.

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Location: Detroit, Michigan, United States

Friday, March 14, 2008

This week in St. John's Undercroft

Friday, March 14, 2008
No break here: Wayne State students forgo getaway to help brighten up city
Marisa Schultz / The Detroit News
DETROIT -- One week of living in Detroit and volunteering in some of its neediest neighborhoods was all it took to convince Brittany Betham that she has a stake in the city's future and the power to make some positive changes.
A native of suburban Livonia with little exposure to Detroit beyond the theater district, Betham's choice to spend her freshman-year spring break in the city was such an eye-opening adventure that she's returned three times.
"I didn't come into this experience thinking we are going to save the city," said Betham, 21, taking a break from constructing a sculpture for a local elementary school. "But we do help out in a small way.
"It's not so much that we change the city, it's that 40 new people come away feeling connected to the city and want to help out in the future."
Betham and the 39 other Wayne State University students this week have been cleaning, painting and volunteering throughout Detroit as part of the university's alternative spring break program. It's the program's fifth year, and unlike other college alternative spring break programs where students travel to places like New Orleans to help, Wayne State students always stay put, believing there's much support they can offer to their own city.
This year, they were joined by students from University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, who braved snowstorms and highway spinouts to come here, spending their spring break volunteering in Detroit and Dearborn.
Their goal: trying to make the community a bit better "one step at a time, one flier, one trash bag at time," said Imani Jamal, a Wayne State sophomore from Detroit, after canvassing a neighborhood with fliers on home improvement loans and grant opportunities.
Wayne State students must apply to the program. They pay a $65 participation fee and agree to live in the basement of a local church for the week, sleeping on the floor. They spend their mornings learning about the city and its crime, blight and homeless problems. By the afternoon, they've flocked to food banks, neighborhood community groups, burned-down houses and youth centers, hoping to make a positive impact.
Many of the students are strangers and come from vastly different backgrounds -- cities and rural townships. Black and white. Male and female.
"The one thing they have in common is they want to do volunteer work," said Tiny Sebastian, Wayne State adviser for alternative spring break.
Alternative spring break programs are becoming increasingly popular, as more students choose building homes and cleaning up parks over basking in the sun in a warmer location.
More than 50,000 college students are expected to participate in alternative spring break this year -- setting a record, said Jill Piacitelli, executive director of Break Away: The Alternative Break Connection.
Michigan colleges remain one of the strongest, if not the strongest, group in the nation for using alternative spring break to promote positive citizenship and leadership, Piacitelli said. But Wayne State is unique by focusing exclusively on its own backyard, she said.
"Alternative spring break is a little bit of a trick," Piacitelli said. The trip is designed to "galvanize you and give you an understanding of social issues." But the big point is when you get back to your own community, you have the tools and motivation to help out there, she said.
"If Wayne State is skipping the middle step, then, all the better," she said. "The trip is the trick to get people interested in their own communities. The break fails if it doesn't translate back home."
Shannon Montgomery had such a positive experience with Wayne's alternative spring break last year, she returned again this week as one of the group leaders.
"I think the most rewarding thing for me was when we were cleaning out the burnt-out house," said Montgomery, 19. She lives near the Forest Arms apartment complex in Detroit that caught fire this winter. "I know a lot of people who have been affected by fires. And it was really something that hit home for me. I'm glad we had a chance to do that."
Julie Baranowski, a Wayne State senior from Richmond, also returned for her second spring break in Detroit while many of her friends are in Cancun, Mexico.
"Going to school down at Wayne State was hard for me when I saw homeless people and all the burned-down buildings," Baranowski said. "It was something I had never experienced before. It made me want to get involved and see what I could do to help out."
You can reach Marisa Schultz at (313) 222-2310 or mschultz@detnews.com