Manhattan College students are no strangers to humanitarianism. For years, the Lasallian Outreach Volunteer Experience (L.O.V.E.) Program has allowed students to travel to various cities and countries all over the world to build homes, provide disaster clean up, and work with impoverished families.
This month, a handful of students gave up a week of their breaks to lend a hand to those in need. Emily Garren, a sophomore communications major, was one of the students on a trip to Kingston, Jamaica.
Having never gone on a service trip before, she was anxious, but found that it didn’t take long to acclimate once the group had arrived.
“At first it didn’t feel real. We were running on little sleep, yet most days I didn’t feel that tired at all. After just a few days, oddly enough, it felt like my new home. I felt like I had been there for such a long time, and when the week was up, I didn’t want to leave,” Garren said.
What seems to be the most powerful aspect of L.O.V.E. trips is that students get to connect with other people and come back with stories that will stay with them for the rest of their lives. Garren recalls two people in particular who left a mark on her heart.
“Tiara was a resident of the children’s home and the place we lived for the week, Sophie’s Place. Her big eyes and infectious smile lit up every room she was in. She used this, and her sassy nature to win over everyone. Jerome was a resident who lived in the Jerusalem property. He had such a kind heart and pure soul, and I feel extremely lucky to have been able to spend time with him. He has this desire and drive to live and love in the best way he can. Jerome can’t walk and had his own special cart to wheel around the property, with only the use of his hands,” Garren said.
“I think what really affected me most about him was when he got out of the cart, walked on his knees, and helped me paint one of the houses. That is something I will never forget,” Garren said.
Trips like these where students are exposed to unfamiliar realities and lifestyles tend to evoke strong emotions. Having a group of similar people around makes it easier for each person to carry the weight of what they are witnessing and experiencing.
Garren admits she couldn’t have made it through without her group, and attributes the success of it all to Caroline O’Connell and Kate Reuter, who were the students who led the trip, as well as the chaperone, Conor Reidy.
“The amount of work and passion they put into it showed throughout the entire week, and they made every day special. Every person on my team served a different purpose, and I couldn’t imagine any one of them not being with me there. Our team was definitely an eclectic bunch, but I wouldn’t change it for the world,” Garren said.
Throughout the week, Garren found herself realizing a lot of truths about her own life and understanding life in a way she hadn’t before.
“I find myself, like many others, always rushing from one thing to the next and not appreciating the present moment. I’ll be doing one task with ten other things I eventually have to do already preoccupying my mind. During my week spent in Jamaica, I learned the importance of patience and that I must do everything I can to the fullest because I have not only the ability but the opportunity to do so. This trip was so much more than I could have ever expected, and I am very thankful I was afforded this opportunity,” Garren said.
As the week drew to a close, Garren explained that it was difficult for everyone to let go of Jamaica and the Mustard Seed Communities where they had been volunteering, especially because the experience had been so transformational for all of them.
“I know, in my heart, that I will return to Jamaica one day. When that is, I’m not sure, but that was my first time and it certainly won’t be my last. I would one hundred percent recommend this to other students. The beautiful country of Jamaica and it’s wonderful people have a piece of my heart, and I can’t wait to return to my other home,” Garren said.
Mahamoud Diop, an international student from Mali, Africa, was one of the students on the Haiti trip. When his group arrived in Port-au-Prince, Diop didn’t find it troublesome to adjust, because Haiti felt somewhat like home.
“When I first got to Haiti I was shocked by just how similar it was to African countries in terms of the culture, the people, and the ambiance. So for me, it was easy to quickly adapt to the country and the lifestyle. I felt like I was back in Mali,” Diop said.
Prior to the trip, all Diop knew about Haiti was what he heard on television about the devastating earthquake that hit in 2010. Throughout his days there, he was able to see how people are still struggling in with its devastation six years later.
“We met a lady who was affected by the earthquake and as not living in the neighborhood called Kanaan 1, which was where many of the people affected by the earthquake relocated to. When they first got there, they were all living in tents, but as time went on they started building their own houses with bricks. It was almost as if the government had abandoned these people and all of the money that was supposed to go towards helping the Haitian people never got to them. The lady lived in a room twice as small as mine with her find children and two grandchildren. The children slept on the floor, clustered up in this tiny room… In that moment I felt grateful, but I also felt powerless, because I wished there was more I could do,” Diop said.
In the wake of these feelings, Diop made it his focus to connect with the people there and to do as much as he could with his time and his resources. Witnessing the people’s remarkable ability to find meaning and happiness in spite of having very little left a lasting impression on him.
“I focused on interacting with the people of Haiti and to see what their needs were, and how we could work together to improve their situation. The trip, for me at least, was extremely rejuvenating. It was nice to see how the people of Haiti live. Although the country is marred by a high level of economic poverty, the Haitian people are some of the most talented, courageous, and joyous people I’ve ever met. In Haiti, people prioritize family, education, and community. Leaving the country I felt grateful and motivated to do more in my community,” Diop said.
Many students who embark on L.O.V.E. trips often mention how much they want to return because of how much they grew, and Diop is another example of this. If he was able to go back again, he says, “I wouldn’t think twice about it.”
Olivia Smith, the leader of the New Orleans trip, was actually still there during her interview, since her group doesn’t arrive home until the day before classes start. Smith said that they have bonded quickly as a team, which is an important way to start the trip.
“We realized after we landed that we had been together for twelve hours straight, which is about how long we had been together during the semester. We’ve all definitely bonded and it’s amazing to watch relative strangers become close friends so quickly,” Smith said.
Smith and her group are working with Project Homecoming in New Orleans, which is an organization dedicated to rebuilding homes which were destroyed in Hurricane Katrina.
“The house I’m working on is basically in shambles. The front three rooms are off-limits because the floor might fall through, but the back of the house is in pretty good condition. We’ve been taking the sheetrock off the walls and ceilings and removing windows, because we’re on the demolition side rather than the building side. It’s fun to get your frustration out hitting walls, though!” Smith said.
Since Smith has been on the New Orleans trip before, she went into this for a second time as a leader, hoping that it can be as impactful for the other students as it was for her. She explains that she has been observing how everyone is reacting to things, because she remembers being in their shoes a year prior.
“I hope that they take away the importance of service, even when it seems like you’re ‘not making a difference.’ I spent seven hours knocking out a wall, which can seem insignificant, but someday somebody will live in that house, and that is amazing. I hope they remember that everything makes a difference, it doesn’t matter how small or insignificant it may feel,” said Smith.
This speaks to a very important element of service work – it’s the small things all together that make up a greater change and a better world, and that’s exactly what the L.O.V.E. program is about.