Habitat for Humanity '07: Back to Clarksdale
By Elaine Gu
Gargoyle staff reporter
Posted Monday, Feb. 19, 2007, The OG, news
EACH YEAR DURING Agora Days, a group of juniors and seniors travels to Clarksdale in Coahoma County, Miss., as part of Uni's annual Habitat for Humanity trip. During that time, students get a chance to learn what life is like for the residents there and to help build homes for those in need.
This tradition was started by history teacher Bill Sutton.
“Fourteen years ago, my family accompanied my church over spring break to Coahoma County to work with Habitat for Humanity,” recalled Sutton, “and we were hooked! Two years later, my wife and I took seven college kids on another spring break trip and we had an incredible week. Since four of those college students were former Uni students, it occurred to me that maybe we could do the same kind of trip with current Uni students.”
Students work in a truss factory during last year's Habitat
for Humanity trip. (photo by Lucas Ecker) (click to enlarge)
Habitat is a nonprofit organization that builds homes for impoverished families. With the help and support of former Director/Principal Shelley Roberts and history teacher Chris Butler, Sutton organized Uni's first Habitat trip in 1996.
PE teacher Doug Mynatt and 1993 graduate Abby Warfel (who went on to live and work in Coahoma County for two years) volunteered to chaperone the trip.
“I still have the note Doug put in my mailbox indicating his interest [in the trip],” said Sutton. “In the subsequent 11 years, Doug has made every trip and Chris has only missed once.”
Located in the Mississippi Delta, the birthplace of the blues, Clarksdale is home to 20,645 people. The median family income was $26,592 as of 1999 (compared to Champaign's median family income of $52,628 in 2000), and 36.2 percent of the population fell below the poverty line.
So why visit Clarksdale?
“Eight years ago, President Clinton visited five specific locations in the U.S., representatives of American poverty, and Clarksdale was one of them,” explained Sutton. “But our connection really comes from just that fact that it was the place we first worked with Habitat.”
During last year's trip, the students helped dig an irrigation ditch for a family, attended a community church service, visited a “truss factory,” and met some amazing people.
Not only did they have fun, they also learned some important life lessons. As Bianca Zaharescu wrote after the trip, “All it took was one week down in Clarksdale for me to realize just how sadly stingy we all are when it comes to indiscriminately sharing our love with others.”
This year, the 18 students (16 seniors and two juniors) going on the trip will get a hands-on experience at mudding and hanging drywall and putting up sidings on a house. Students will also have the opportunity to attend a community potluck, help at a local soup kitchen, and volunteer at an elementary school.
Half the group departed for Clarksdale on Saturday and the other half Sunday. Everyone will return to C-U by Feb. 25.
Zaharescu, now a senior, was a member of the selection committee that chose who would be part of this year's trip.
“It was so hard to pick,” she said. “Everyone deserved to go, but we had to cut so many people! Ideally, I wanted to pick the people who I thought would get the most out of this trip. We weren't judging in terms of previous experience or, ‘Oh, this person understands what's going on down there,' because you can't expect anyone to know what something's like until they've been there. So we just tried to pick people who would benefit the most from this experience.”
Fellow senior Ben Fu is excited to finally go on the Habitat trip after not getting in last year.
“A lot of the people last year said that it was a really great experience, and many are continuing to work with Habitat in college or during their year off,” he said. “I've never really done anything quite like this, so it's going to be a learning experience for me as well. I often read about people helping others through volunteer work such as Habitat, so I wanted to experience it as well.”
As a veteran of the trip, Zaharescu understands Fu's enthusiasm. She's eager for others to have the same kind of positive experience she enjoyed last year.
“I'm really looking forward to just being back there and seeing people in the community there,” she said, “but I'm really excited to see what an impact this trip has on some of the Uni individuals who are going down there.”
Sutton is gratified to see how the Habitat trip has become a Uni tradition in is own right.
“We're helping in a situation where there's been injustice, and we're helping by working alongside the people rather than just ‘for' them,” he explained. “When we see underprivileged folks welcoming us into their communities, we experience a process of social redemption beyond our conviction regarding social justice.”
Sutton's favorite aspects of this tradition include “seeing the old friends in Clarksdale that we have been working with for years.”
This year, the group will also see 2006 graduates Colette DeJong and Katie Carmody, who have been in Clarksdale since January.
“For me, connecting what I know about U.S. history to what we're actually experiencing is a highlight of teaching,” said Sutton. “One thing I love about this [trip] is that it's not about what I want [the students] to learn but rather what they learn for themselves and what the community and the experience teaches them.”
— Gargoyle photos: 2006 Habitat trip photos
— Gargoyle story: Welcome to Clarksdale