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In Affluence’s Long Shadow, Students Help ‘People They Don’t Even Know’


While their colleagues were enjoying Spring Break with friends and family, seven Penn College students ventured to Yonkers, N.Y., to work on housing projects for Habitat for Humanity.

Participating in the Alternate Spring Break experience were information technology: information assurance and security concentration majors Joseph W. Bourgart, of Warrington; Taylor R. Lapointe, of Pelham, N.H.; and Adam C. Swan, of Lititz; Timothy W. Duncan, a web and interactive media student from Lakeville; Rebecca R. Miller, a graphic communications management major from Williamsport; Bethany M. Reppert, of Pottsville, enrolled in applied human services; and accounting major Roman K. Robbins, of Muncy.

Also attending was Joe Miller, manager of audio/visual services and an adjunct instructor in the School of Integrated Studies, who served as trip chaperone.

Penn College students and their chaperone joined a group from St. Joseph's College on a Habitat for Humanity project in Yonkers, N.Y.
Penn College students and their chaperone joined a group from St. Joseph’s College on a Habitat for Humanity project in Yonkers, N.Y.

Yonkers is in Westchester County, a suburb of New York City generally regarded as a rather wealthy one.  From its hilltops on a clear day, you can see downtown Manhattan; however, about 90,000 people in the region are living below the poverty line.

The team had a chance to see this firsthand, Joe Miller related: During one night of their trip, they were awakened to the sound of a man digging through garbage behind the apartment where they were staying in an attempt to find food.

Habitat for Humanity provides interest-free loans to qualified applicants to assist them with making home ownership a reality. Each family is required to work on its own home and/or other Habitat projects in the area.  Many also go on to serve Habitat for Humanity with home construction and remodeling efforts elsewhere.

“You all were exemplary,” one of the Westchester County Habitat for Humanity project managers said of the Penn College workers. “Took the bull by the horns … thanks!”

The delegation from Penn College teamed with a group from St. Joseph’s College in Standish, Maine, for ongoing demolition work at some houses along High Street in Yonkers. Work conducted during the trip included debris removal and disposal, landscape improvement and trash collection. In addition, members from both colleges dismantled and extricated a half-ton boiler from the basement from one of the homes to prepare the site for installation of a new state-of-the-art heating system.

Teams from other areas of the country will arrive in future weeks to continue these efforts and begin the long process of renovating these dwellings into liveable structures.

The homes are situated on a hillside between High Street and another street below it. Consequently, any materials taken to the structures (along with any debris taken out of them) had to be taken up or down the hillside. The 101 stairs connecting the streets include many that themselves are in various stages of disrepair, Joe Miller said, making the treks across them quite hazardous.

Miller said it was “sobering” to see these students take part in this.

“The work was dirty, the weather ranged from unfavorable to downright brutal, and yet these kids put their heart and soul into doing things that no one would ever want to do,” he said. “They toiled without complaining and with no thought of themselves.  That they did it for people they don’t even know is one thing… the fact that they paid to have the opportunity to do it was downright remarkable, giving up of their time and money to help others. I was truly inspired.”

The trip was organized by Students Making a Contribution, a Penn College volunteer service organization. Swan, SMAC founder and president, noted this is the third consecutive year that Penn College has partnered with Westchester County Habitat for Humanity in its efforts.

“Despite the rain, snow and wind, we had a great time, the home we worked on will be sold to veterans of the Iraq or Afghan wars once completed in several years for an affordable price,” said Swan, explaining that many people have the misconception that Habitat simply gives homes away.  “Many SMAC members made new friends, no one was seriously injured and, overall, it was a great week!”

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