by Margaret Antonio
Every year during the last week of winter break, many Boston College students venture out to various places in the U.S. and Latin America as part of BC’s characteristic “service-learning” programs. Being in a new state or a foreign country to serve and learn about a community is often a potent, eye-awakening experience. However, this year, 18 BC students stayed on campus to participate in “Urban Immersion,” a program that focuses on learning about poverty and homelessness while volunteering in Boston.
“It’s a huge learning experience,” said Fr. Don MacMillian, who has been coordinating the program since 2003. “It’s important for our students to learn about this situation.“
“I wanted to broaden my perspective of the social inequality that exists here in Boston,” said Christian Coletta, A&S ‘15. “I also wanted to make some new friends who feel as strongly about this issue; they're the kind of people I want to surround myself with in the future.”
Participants board in their year-round dorms during the week. In the past, they stayed at a hostel in the city, but as boarding prices have increased over recent years, the program coordinators opted to stay on campus rather than increase the program price. The $50 fee includes food, transportation on the T, and all other activities.
During the day, participants rotate in small groups to volunteer at five different places, including Rosie’s Place, St. Francis House, Marian Manor, the Boston Living’s Center, and the Boston Rescue Mission. Some of the places specifically serve women, ex-convicts, those with AIDs, or those who are preparing for a job. Students from Boston College often volunteer at these places during the year, so there is an immense need for volunteers during the winter break.
At the St. Francis House one day, said Fr. MacMillan, some of the students had to unpack boxes of clothing, and it was all BC athletic apparel from the bookstore or the athletics department. Another time, some of the men in line for food were wearing BC Marching Band hats.
In the evening, participants return to campus for dinner and time for reflection and prayer. Later, speakers come to address the group about issues regarding homelessness and poverty. One night featured a panel of individuals who were homeless themselves.
“When asked what people could do for the homeless, the panelists emphasized the power of a simple hello or genuine acknowledgement,” said Mary Popeo, A&S ‘14. “...[B]eing ignored or shunned due to circumstances beyond [their] control... can lead homeless people to believe that no one cares about them. Listening to the panelists' heart wrenching stories humanized the homeless experience for me.”
The panel also inspired Coletta to change the way he treats the homeless. “I'm making a point to stop and chat with folks who are asking for change--according to a formerly homeless man who came to speak with us, sometimes this is more valuable than the change in a cup. If we can learn to recognize each person's human dignity, we might face fewer of the widespread issues that exist today here in Boston.”
Every year, about 40-50 students apply to the program and 25 are accepted. This year, however, applications were lower and several dropped out of the program due to cancelled flights during winter storm Hercules. “Even then, you say, ‘well, you only have 18,” said Fr. MacMillian. “But that’s 18 more who know about poverty and homelessness.”
To find out more about the Urban Immersion trip, visit the BC Campus Ministry page: Click Here