Sally-Irene Ngeve could have spent her spring break almost anywhere.
But the Carolina senior chose not to relax on a beach all week, wander around a quieter Chapel Hill or head back home to Cameroon to visit her family.
Instead, she spent her time off providing much-needed assistance to the people of Robeson County — a rural community that has struggled with unemployment, homelessness and hunger for the past six decades.
“Helping is my passion,” Ngeve said. “I love helping. I’ll do anything to just help the next person.”
Ngeve was just one of the hundreds of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill students who used their spring break to help needy communities within the state, throughout the nation and around the world.
Five of those alternative spring break trips — including the one to Robeson County — came from the Critical Approaches to Service Learning course in the Carolina Center for Public Service’s APPLES Service-Learning program, which sends students out into various communities to see firsthand the wide range of issues impacting citizens.
“Students go into this initially wanting to really help the community and wanting to do good,” said Eyerusalem Tessema, a graduate instructor of Critical Approaches to Service-Learning. “Through the class and the trip, they realize that this is really a learning experience for them, and whatever they do is going to be really small. They will do service, but I think its more of engaging in the community and learning things from their perspectives and not just taking whatever you read.”
For the class, students were divided into five different trips that focused on civil rights in Birmingham; disaster relief in Georgetown, South Carolina; Latino communities throughout North Carolina; rural communities in Robeson County; and urban communities in Atlanta.
Students then visited community centers, met with local leaders and immersed themselves in the communities through service projects to better understand the economic and social factors affecting residents.
For Ngeve and her group in Robeson, that meant closely working with the Lumbee tribe and learning to navigate a rural community that is split evenly between white, black and Native American citizens.
“Robeson County is home, and it’s growing, but some of the issues are still the same as they were when this center started in 1969,” said Darlene Jacobs, executive director at Robeson County Church and Community Center. “The issue of hunger is even more, homelessness has grown, unemployment is higher than the state’s, 56 percent of our children are living in single-parent homes, and the number one industry is welfare. There are a lot of issues here.”
The Carolina students began the trip with ideas of what could be fixed and who needed help, but they quickly learned that their preconceived notions of the area didn’t align with the truth.
While presenting college readiness programs to high school students, it became clear that although the towns have their struggles, the idea of moving away isn’t an option — or desire — for many of the youngsters.
“The community is incredibly close knit,” said Dylan Cohen, student-leader of the trip to Robeson County. “Because it’s such a close-knit community, people don’t feel they need to leave. The argument we were planning on making of ‘Here’s how you can go to a nice big city and make a whole lot of money’ is not what they wanted to hear. They want to hear how to make it work here in their hometown.”
As the week went on, the group began to better understand the community and its actual needs versus its perceived needs. A common concern of residents, Cohen said, was diabetes and childhood obesity.
“Their access to healthy food is abysmal,” he said. “Access to healthy local food is not feasible, and with that comes a lot of health issues.”
After returning to Chapel Hill, students will use their experiences from the trips to develop plans to solve the real, complex problems they saw. But the groups also made sure to care for some short-term issues while they were out in the communities.
“The students are wonderful,” Jacobs said. “They are out doing what we would do ourselves but we can’t. They’re our hands and feet in the community. It’s a win-win for so many people — not only for us, but also for the client, as well as for themselves. I think it’s a really powerful statement to be able to go out into the community and make a difference in their lives.”
In Robeson County, the group of students spent a full day building a wheelchair ramp for Anne McNabb, a local resident that had spent the past four months away from home recovering from a broken leg. Without the ramp, McNabb wouldn’t have been able to come home.
“It’s a wonderful, wonderful thing,” McNabb said. “It teaches them a lot about life and shows that they care about people. A lot of people aren’t that way today. It uplifts me.”
At the end of the day, Cohen said, making sure people like McNabb received the help they needed was more important than any other spring break trip the group could have taken.
“What’s valuable for this group of students and for myself, we take a lot more joy out of providing joy to other people than to maybe going to see something new ourselves,” he said.