Change Can Be Made Right Here, Right Now

by Karen Kwiatek

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In December 2014, I participated in a community service project for the first time. I was a senior in college and had always been consumed by schoolwork itself and chasing the A+ in every class. However, one day, it hit me: I needed to expand my focus and give back to others in need. I remembered something my close friend had once told me–she insisted I participate in an “Alternative Breaks” (AB) community service trip.

AB offered a huge variety of trips to complete over spring and winter break so students made positive social change in their free time (instead of just watching Netflix!) I went through a series of interviews and kept saying the same thing, “No, I don’t have any volunteer experience and I’m sad to say I don’t. But right here, right now, I want to change that.” I was accepted into the winter break trip called “The American Dream: Assisting Immigrant and Refugee Families in Boston.”

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The first day of the trip felt like Christmas. I hopped on the train from Rutgers University and was ready to see a new city and new faces. More importantly, I was ready to learn from something other than a textbook. Yet I quickly got caught up in the excitement of meeting the other students on the trip and staying in my first hostel. I was once again consumed in things involving only myself. However, the first morning waking up in Boston changed everything.

We walked to our first site called Student Immigrant Movement (SIM). The building had no sign and was somewhat hidden in a dead end road. As we walked in, we were greeted by a man named Luis. He was somewhat shy, but his smile made us all feel warm even in the frigid Boston winter. Before we began our work, we sat and listened to the stories of Luis and other employees of why they became involved in SIM.

Luis began to tell of his childhood in Guatemala, and his family’s fear for safety amidst constant violence penetrating their city. He remembered risking his life to hire a Coyote to smuggle them into the United States. As he spoke, we all felt the fear and pain lingering in these memories. Luis had been in the US for some years now, and wanted only one thing: He was fighting for a chance to go to college.

Every student on our AB trip was touched by his story and was ready to do anything we could to help him in this political fight. Each morning, we began researching local politicians and fundraising for SIM’s campaign to extend DACA and DAPA legislation to include financial aid and in-state tuition for hard-working immigrants. We all bonded so quickly that at the end of the trip, we visited the Harvard campus together and had a snowball fight–all while discussing how to improve the lives of undocumented immigrants in Boston.

What still stands out in my memory the most about my experience with SIM was how I realized their employees were making significant changes in the world because of their passion and relentless fighting for what they believed in. I had always thought that I needed at least a Master’s degree before I could actually make a difference in the world; Yet, SIM’s employees had accomplished more than I ever had, and with only a high school diploma and a dream.

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After SIM, every evening our group would take the train down to Catholic Charities which was the second site of our trip. The site was located in Dorchester, Massachusetts, where gang-related violence is rampant. We were told that Catholic Charities served as a safe house for children to complete their homework, play sports, and shelter them from street violence. We were assigned a classroom of various grade levels to serve as a tutor and mentor to the children.

I worried about my ability to be a mentor, or that I would not be able to relate to their stories. By the second day, I had built an amazing bond with a few girls and boys around the age of 6. They were some of the sweetest and most polite children I had ever met. In Dorchester, the majority of the population is from the Cape Verdean Islands. The children glowed when they shared about their culture: They taught me some words in Creole, their native language, and described their favorite island meals.

The greatest part of my time at Catholic Charities was when a group of the children performed a Cape Verdean Funana dance as a thank you to our group for our help. Amidst the crime and the problems they may be encountered with, I had never seen anyone happier than they were performing their native dance. The Cape Verdian islands off the coast of West Africa have a rich culture of dance and song. I invite you learn a little about these great islands and check out this video of Funana music. Happy listening!

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I would love for anyone who is interested to check out Student Immigrant Movement’s website or like their Facebook page. They are always keeping their followers updated on legislation that affect the welfare of undocumented immigrants and what you can do to help. 

If you’d like to donate, click here. They take contributions from as little as $1, and anything helps!

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