A winter service week in review

by Megan Rooney

Features Contributor

Winter Break is a time for college students to relax and reenergize from the long fall semester.  This typically includes sleeping in, going on a vacation, or visiting friends while you’re all back home for the month.  But, for over forty Canisius students, winter break, or at least one week of their winter break, was completely unique from the norm, as they engaged in one of six Service-Immersion trips offered here as a part of Campus Ministry’s Winter Service Week program.

Every year, Canisius’ Campus Ministry office offers “Winter Service Week,” which is an opportunity for students to experience a week of service outside of Buffalo, exposing them to social justice issues and service experiences that they would not typically see.  These service experiences are created to teach students about social justice, spirituality, and solidarity, but to also put them outside of their comfort zones by participating in ministries that will expose them to thought provoking problems and issues.

This year students visited Syracuse, the Erie Benedictine Society, Ndakinna Education Center, Lyons, the Rural and Migrant Ministry in Lyons, New York, and the Farm Sanctuary in Watkins Glen.

The service trips were planned with individual thought and passion by Alice Zacari, Associate Campus Minister here at Canisius College.  When asked what went into planning these trips, she shared, “I had to contact each site to inquire about when we could visit.  Once the dates were set, we opened up applications for participants and student leaders,” said Zicari.  “Anyone who attended Winter Service Week in the past could apply to be a student leader.  We had a retreat to train the student leaders in the four Jesuit cornerstone values: simplicity, social justice, spirituality, and solidarity.  Once we had teams put together we had meetings about our program and information on the sites.”

But, each Winter Service Week site is different to plan.  For example, Sr. Marilyn from the Benedictine Society created the schedule for the week in Erie.  In regards to the Ndakinna service trip, Alice reached out to different sites to schedule visits each day, such as when they were able to help out at the nature preserve or the soup kitchen.

The students that went to the Erie Benedictine Society stayed with the Benedictine nuns for seven days, spending each day following the same lifestyle as the nuns that they were staying with.  This consisted of waking up early for prayer at 6:30 a.m. as well as attending afternoon and evening prayer, eating at designated times with the sisters, and going out into the different service ministries that the Benedictine sisters help in administering.  These ministries included children’s after school programs, a soup kitchen, a food pantry, different services within the monastery, a refugee center in which the students helped teach Somali refugees to fill out job applications, and a day care.

Nick Styinson, a freshman that was a member of the Erie team, looked back on his experiences and said, “I think the thing that struck me the most was how charitable people were to the ministries such as the food pantry, with not only physical donations, but also with their time.”

Styinson also went on to share his favorite memory saying, “While I was at the soup kitchen, a man walked in that is a regular for coming to get a meal at night, and one of the nuns welcomed him and started to walk him to the food line,” he shared.  “But, he said that he was not there for food and was there to bring a donation.  His work had given him three packets of baby food, so the man wanted to give them to the soup kitchen as his way of giving back for all they have done for him.  It was pretty much all he had to give and he still wanted to donate it.”

The Erie immersion experience is different than a lot of the other trips due to the fact that the students go to a different site every single day, meaning that they work with different people everyday.  This makes a large theme of the trip that by doing the service you are not changing anyone’s life, but that does not mean that you can not change their day and make even one day of their life a little bit easier.

The second service trip that Canisius students participated in was to the Farm Sanctuary, which rescues animals from factory farms that would lead them to be slaughtered.  In addition, it rescues them from horrible conditions that they would face elsewhere.  It is home to over 500 rescued animals!  The people that attended learned about the mission of the Sanctuary and helped with day-to-day tasks.  This included cleaning barns, feeding animals, and other miscellaneous jobs from seven thirty in the morning until one in the afternoon.

Sophomore Annalyse Paulsen was one of the nine students that visited the sanctuary.  One of the memories she recalled from the Farm Sanctuary is about a rainy morning in which they helped in the cow barns.  The work took five hours and it was extremely physically taxing.  This is the type of work that the people on the farm do every single day to take care of hundreds of animals and to keep them from being slaughtered or mistreated.

Besides helping with day-to-day tasks at the Farm Sanctuary, the students also learned about the benefits of plant based living as well as the influences of modern food production. This was done through immersion into a vegan lifestyle and vegan eating, and emphasized by meeting and bonding with animals that would be affected by abusive food production.

Speaking on this, Paulsen said, “Our team loved spending time with the animals, as anyone there would.  We each found connections with animals that meant something to us.  The sheep were so adorable and when they got happy would wag their tags.  The pigs lived the life, by sleeping for 18 hours a day buried in their hay beds.  It was awesome being able to connect with them and see the life in them.”

Further looking back on her time at the Farm Sanctuary, Paulsen shared, “Aside from the animals and spending time with everyone, what stands out is the profound peace on the farm. Maybe it was the expansiveness of the Watkins Glen area, but everyone you met there was filled with love and compassion,” she said.  “It was so relaxing being there, and some of the atmosphere has to be because of the hearts of the people that run it.”

The third service immersion was the Rural and Migrant ministry.  This trip involved visiting migrant farm workers and learning about the challenges that they face.  The students eyes were opened as their observed a life unfamiliar to most, as migrant farmworkers are one of the most overlooked populations in the country, consisting of many undocumented immigrants.  

One of the major problems that these rural workers face is that they are not given the same labor rights as the parts of the population that work in other industries.  They often make less than minimum wage, work ten hours a day, and can not take a day off without the fear of getting fired. This is just a small portion of the problems that they face.

Junior Madelyn Reed was one of the students  that visited Lyons, New York.  Amazed by the strength that the migrant women she met displayed she shared, “While on the trip our group got to meet 4 women working at the farm in the apple orchards.  We had a chance to watch them prune and trim trees for 30 minutes and even tried ourselves,” described Reed.  “It takes a lot more muscle than you would think.”

One of the most impactful parts of the immersion experience was talking to the migrants and rural farmers, and listening to their stories and the injustices they face.  In addition, their gratefulness and hopeful outlook despite these problems were incredibly impactful to students.

Reed recalled talking to a group of women immigrants from Mexico that had come to the United States in search for a better life for themselves and their children.  She said, “The women started telling us about themselves and something they kept repeating is ‘We are not bad people. We love to pick the fruit and we just want to give our children a better life so that they do not end up as farmworkers like us.’  Not one complaint about the job that no one else in the country wants to do.”

This trip allowed students to see the labor and injustices that go into the food that we all eat everyday, and allow for this issue to become more than simply an argument that one would see on the news.

The fourth service site was Syracuse Catholic Youth Organization, which consisted of working with “new Americans” ranging from three to sixty-seven years old.  This meant helping teach English to both the children and the adults, aiding the adults with filling out job applications, and spending time with these people from activities such as ice skating with them to simply listening to their stories.

Junior Anne Marie DeRusso offered her words on the subject.  “All of our perspectives were changed by listening to all of the battles these people have overcome, whether it was them being separated from their families, to struggling to find employment or most commonly learning English,” she said.

DeRusso continued to share about her experience.  “Every person I met had such a warm heart and a gracious spirit,” she described.  “My favorite memories were those made with CiiNo, a Burmese woman who was 67 years old, raising two 7 year old girls who were left to her when her sister passed away.  Although CiiNo and I could rarely have a conversation due to the language barriers we shared a ton of laughs and she stole a piece of my heart.  The Syracuse CYO offers incredible opportunities for refugees, immigrants, and asylum seekers.  This service trip was one that helped me grow a deeper appreciation for the United States’ melting pot.  There are not enough words to explain the love I have for this trip.”

Lastly, students visited Ndakinna Education Center in Greenfield, New York.  This trip was centrally focused about learning about Native American culture, which consisted of animal tracking, experiencing nature, learning the Abenecke language, and immersing oneself in the simplistic lifestyle of the people of Ndakinna.

The trip included both service based activities, as well as learning experiences, which allowed the students to receive a unique mix of different activities.  These included working in a soup kitchen, aiding in cleaning around the facility, but also hiking a mountain, exploring the Saratoga Springs area, building fires, and learning Jiujisu, which is a type of martial arts taught at the education center.

Ndakinna is unique because it exposes students to an environment that is completely unfamiliar compared to the lifestyle of most.  Located in an isolated environment from the cities and suburbs that we become accustomed to, Ndakinna allows students to put themselves into a completely different mindset.

Junior Sydney Bucholtz commented on this saying, “Being unplugged and off-the-grid for an entire week was such a unique experience because I felt like I could actually breathe better.  It was really amazing to have the opportunity to begin the new year in a calm, peaceful, gorgeous place, and to be surrounded by all of the loving people that we met.  I found that being at Ndakinna helped me find a good source of inner peace, and a sense that everything and everyone is connected to each other.  I am grateful for the experience for facilitating me to be in the right place to realize that, and I I can bring into other contexts, even after the trip ended.”

Not only was this experience valuable in learning about oneself and finding inner peace, but also valuable because of the way in which it helped its team members bond and learn about each other.  Activities such as cooking dinner together, exploring the area, and just sitting together and talking allowed the group to become more united and whole as they took on the week together.

To conclude the week at the Ndakinna Education Center, the Canisius students painted a mural on the ceiling of the dormitory that they were staying in using the Abenecke language that they had learned, wrapping up all they had learned in a definitive and artistic way.

The week at Ndakinna had not only allowed the team to learn valuable skills, but to also become immersed in the Native American way of life, enabling them to feel as if they had vividly experienced the Native American culture of the location they were in.

When reflecting how she thinks that the sites turned out, Zicari said, “I can’t speak for each student who went on Winter Service Week, but I hope that everyone had an assumption challenged,” she voiced.  “I hope the students were able to open up to each other and build community with their teams and the people they worked with, and I hope they take the things they learned and figure out ways to apply the experiences to their daily lives!”

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