Tech students serve in Memphis


The volunteers pose for a group photo. In the front: Kyla Valenti, Neffertia Tyner, Emily Simmons, Jonathan Davey, Stephanie Bean, Justin Boogaart. In the back: Zachary Rubinstein, Abby Kirk, Gina Ennis, Jessica Geroux. – Photo courtesy of Kyla Valenti

Last week on March 3, a group of students from Michigan Tech’s Center for Diversity and Inclusion and Student Activities, myself included, headed to Memphis, TN for an Alternative Spring Break trip. While there, we partnered with an organization called Serve901, which hosts serving experiences with the city of Memphis by linking groups of volunteers with projects in need of more individuals willing to help. The week began with an orientation inside of Clayborn Temple.

Formerly known as the First Presbyterian Church, Clayborn Temple was once a stage for the national civil rights movement and is where the Memphis Sanitation Strike was organized in 1968. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis the night after delivering a speech about this very topic. The site of his assassination is now the site of the National Civil Rights Museum, where groups involved with Serve901 last week were encouraged to visit. Visiting these historic places set the stage for an impassioned week of service. The places where we volunteered include Neighborhood Christian Center, where we assisted in creating their annual Spring Jam event. Spring Jam is an annual cultural event for children which simulates spring break travel to a foreign country.

Our team assisted in building and painting in order to transform the community center into Nigeria, a massive undertaking which would not have been possible without the huge amounts of passion, planning, and manpower which NCC had in making the vision come to fruition, as they have for the past 13 years. As a volunteer with the project, it was amazing to see how members of their organization as well as our own came together to make it happen, and an honor to be a part of.

We also participated during the actual event, some of us as tour guides, some preparing and serving food, and some working in the market. As children came through, it was clear to everybody that our efforts had paid off. Another location we visited was Landmark Urban Farm, where we quickly became engaged in learning about Landmark’s role in Orange Mound, the neighborhood in which it exists. Their mission is to create “sustainable agricultural environments in food desert communities,” and involves working to eradicate childhood malnutrition, particularly for the sake of higher educational achievement, as well as to provide training to at-risk individuals.

Among the goals of their training is to promote higher self-respect, which is something we spoke about in depth with Mike and Karen Minnis. They are the husband and wife team who owns and operates Landmark Farmers Market and Landmark Training Development Company. Our work there included planting seeds, plowing, and tilling the soil. The last group we worked with was Friends for Life, a non-profit community health organization which focuses on support for those affected by HIV and AIDS. The organization helps to provide many different services to the community of those individuals affected, and to Memphis as a whole, which includes housing, counseling, a pharmacy, a food pantry, and much more.

The experience made us much more conscious of the struggles faced by those who are HIV positive or who have AIDS, as well as what can be done to address those struggles, both preventatively, and in the lives of the people who are already affected. Many of us discovered that there is a medication that can be taken to prevent infection, and that there have been no known cases in patients who use it in the drug’s entire history. The medication is called Pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP, and works to prevent a permanent infection from being established once a patient is exposed to the virus. Among the many interesting and enlightening experiences we had with Serve901 was a presentation delivered by Just City, an organization founded in 2015 by a group of activists working for criminal justice reform.

More specifically, their work involves efforts to reduce contact with the criminal justice system by improving relationships between neighborhoods and police forces. This could help reduce jail populations by supporting public defense systems and reforming bail bonds. Just City also assists those who have been incarcerated by expunging their records and restoring their rights and freedoms. Groups volunteering with Serve901, inspired by the information and impact of Just City, were in competition to brainstorm ways in which the organization could advance to funding and awareness. Their role in interacting with us was not only a means of creating awareness among those serving in Memphis, a community for whom these issues are relevant, but to get us involved creatively in the process of developing plans for making a difference there.

The takeaways from this trip were innumerable; it was an incredible experience that I would recommend to just about anyone. Our group was very impacted by the organizations we served and the people we met in Memphis, and found myself impacted everyday by the effectiveness of and volume of accomplishment possible for people working together as a community. I was impressed by the people I served with from Michigan Tech, who throughout the week inspired me with the work they did, the ideas, feelings, and experiences they shared, and their drive to contribute and to be engaged. We were all aware that times are hard and that the world is in need of people who are willing to be actively invested in their communities and who are willing to make a difference.

It is easy to be disillusioned at this time in our lives and in our history as a nation, but there is hope. If you are looking to make a difference, or if you feel that you need to have your faith in humanity restored, serve. Do something to better the community you are living in. Be with others who also want to make progress, and work with them. Talk about the change you want to see happen.