MAHALIA SMITH | CONTRIBUTING WRITER
While many students lounged at home binging on Netflix over the winter break, a few APSU students were completing service projects.
A group of students in the President’s Emerging Leaders Program (PELP) went to Trinidad and Tobago as part of a winter leadership course taught by Matthew Kenney, director of the Honors Program and PELP.
Juniors Natalie Cooper and Waqas Ahmed were among the students on the trip.
Cooper, a healthcare management major, described arriving in the small airport.
“We walked outside and it was very hot and steamy, and very busy,” Cooper said.
There was a problem in customs, when biology major Ahmed, a Pakistani citizen, had to go through some extra security.
“I had to answer a couple hundred questions,” Ahmed said. “It took about two hours.”
After the situation cleared up, the students stayed in the city of Tunapuna, in a church compound. There were open air markets nearby.
“It was kind of in a rough area,” Cooper said. “We had to lock ourselves in at night.”
The PELP students worked with Habitat for Humanity to build a house working closely with Damani, a local man who would soon live in the house. Through Habitat for Humanity, housing applicants receive the house for free; the controlled mortgage they pay serves as funding to build more homes.
“We did the framework and put the roof on, and on the last day we did some of the siding,” Cooper said. It was a challenge for Cooper as she had no building experience beforehand.
“I have no muscle, so it was very difficult,” Cooper said, “but I did my best.”
The building was easier for Ahmed.
“We had a couple of really good teachers,” Ahmed said.
It was not all work for the students, who got to spend a day in the tourist part of Tobago and meet some mischievous friends on the beach in Trinidad.
“There were [wild] pigs on the beach,” Cooper said, “one of them tried to take Dr. Kenney’s shoe.” Another student kept the pigs at bay by throwing sand at them.
The students immersed themselves in the blended culture of Trinidad and Tobago. The food is influenced by Indian and Spanish flavors.
“There was a lot of spices, rice and beans, and chicken,” Cooper said.
“I was hoping for ethnic Indian food, because that’s what Dr. Kenney told us,” Ahmed said. “[But] it was very different […] It was a shock, but I liked it.”
Cooper and Ahmed said they were surprised by some of the things they saw there.
“What was really surprising is that the house that were considered very high class and very nice would be like what people in poverty in America would live in,” Cooper said.
Ahmed saw similarities between Trinidad and Tobago and Pakistan.
“The streets were the same,” Ahmed said, “[and] the driving was chaotic.” Citizens drive on the opposite side of the street from America.
Both Ahmed and Cooper said they enjoyed bonding with their classmates during the trip, and the relaxed, “very Caribbean” attitudes of the locals.
“Through the PELP program we take a class together every semester of college,” Cooper said, “Seeing how close we got was really cool […] and it took us getting out of the country to do that.”
“I recommend it to everyone.” Ahmed said.
That was not the only service trip that happened during winter break.
The APSU Center for Service-Learning & Community Engagement sponsored a trip to New Orleans as a part of the Alternative Break Trip program. In New Orleans, students worked with the Audubon Nature Institute, the New Orleans Rescue Mission and the Villalobos Rescue Center for dogs.
“They were volunteer superstars,” said Jamie Pack, director of the Alternative Break program.
Freshman Cassie Meadows, a social work major, went on the trip. The group cleaned out dirt and debris from the Mississippi River at the Aquarium of the Americas, and painted fences at the Audubon Zoo.
Meadows enjoyed working at the Villalobos Rescue Center and walking two dogs, Adah and Molasses.
“I probably had the most sober dog both nights,” Meadows said. Adah had a straightforward attitude.
“She wouldn’t look at me,” Meadows said. “She sniffed me once and was like ‘OK, you can walk me.’”
The group also served dinner at the Rescue Mission to around 200 people.
“Some of the people serving alongside us had been homeless,” Meadows said. “I found that really cool.”
Senior psychology major Ann Madden, the trip leader, found the mission “shocking and a little humbling.”
“It’s sad that we live in one of the richest countries, and people are still suffering like that.” Madden said. She saw lingering destruction from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, even though it has been 12 years since the event.
On Friday, the group took a break and explored the city. They took a ferry ride and went through the French quarter, visiting the famous Café du Monde, St. Louis Cathedral and St. Louis Cemetery No. 1.
“I miss how artsy all the buildings were,” Meadows said, recalling the unique architecture of the city.
The group got a special surprise that day.
“We were on site while they were filming a scene for ‘NCIS New Orleans,’ Madden said.
The CSLCE has upcoming spring break trips to Nashville, Louisiana and Oklahoma to help with construction. In the summer, there is a trip to Antigua, Guatemala. A fundraiser for this trip will be held on Feb. 8 at CiCi’s Pizza. Applications for trips are seasonal, and any interested students can visit their website, http://www.apsu.edu/volunteer.
Due to high demand, there have been 10 trips planned for the 2016-2017 school year.
“Spring is a really great opportunity to jump on a trip,” Pack said. In the spring, students who have been on previous trips can apply to become student leaders, and get to choose where they want to serve.
Madden said she recommends Alternative Break trips to all students.
“You get an opportunity to experience something new and to help people,” Madden said.