During spring break, nine SJC students traveled to the Bronx for a week of service and fun. During our time there, we stayed in the Lasallian Community of Bedford Park, a home in the Bedford Park neighborhood of the Bronx in New York City where Christian Brothers and Lasallian Volunteers live together in community.
From the beginning, the Brothers were welcoming to us. On the first day, they took us on a tour of the Bronx. We walked around Arthur Avenue, a famous Italian neighborhood, where we tried clams and cannolis, and we visited the Wakefield neighborhood, where we tried jerk chicken.
While we weren’t doing service on the first day, we learned a lot about the community. The Brothers talked a lot about gentrification and change in the area. They explained how nearby Fordham University had turned their entrance from facing the neighborhood to facing the New York Botanical Garden for appearance, causing tension in the community.
That night, we learned about how this Lasallian Community prepares and eats dinner together every night. One of the Brothers chooses an innovative prayer each evening. On our first night, Brother Ed chose to have the group sing a Carrie Underwood song together.
Each night, our group reflected on our day and the experiences we had had. On that first day, a lot of us mentioned the initial culture shock we felt in the Bronx, as the neighborhood was very different from DC.
The next day, we participated in our first morning prayer in the community. At 6:15 every weekday morning, the whole house wakes up to pray together. After that, we left for our first day of service. We walked to nearby Part of the Solution (POTS), a community center that provides legal services, a food pantry, and more. In the morning, we were all given different tasks. Some of us worked in the kitchen, prepping for lunch, while others worked in the food pantry, where they got to help customers select items based on the My Plate nutritional standards. I worked as a hospitality specialist, getting people coffee and chatting with them while they waited for services. In the afternoon, we served lunch in the community dining room for about four hours straight. This was a tiring task because POTS serves hundreds of people every day.
Afterward, we reflected on and discussed how this experience had changed any stereotypes we might have had about soup kitchens and poverty. It struck me how they referred to the cafeteria, which operated like a restaurant, as the community dining room as opposed to a soup kitchen, because this small change of words can change someone’s outlook on their situation.
On Wednesday, we went to Van Cortlandt Park, New York City’s third-largest park, in a different part of the Bronx. It was very similar to Rock Creek Park. We learned about how it is an important part of the local ecosystem and took a walk around the park to learn about its history. Then we put on wetsuits and ventured into the river, where we were able to find many small organisms.
That afternoon, we met up with two other Lasallian schools from New York. We were broken up into groups and went on a scavenger hunt in the Bronx Zoo. We returned to the house and helped clean it up by planting bulbs, picking up trash, and painting. It was fun to meet kids from other Lasallian schools and we got along very well.
On Thursday, we headed to Crotona Park to mulch trees and pick up trash. We worked with an environmental group called The Bronx Is Blooming, whose mission is to improve parks in the Bronx. It was probably our most labor-intensive day, but it was rewarding to see how we had helped develop a community space.
That evening at reflection, all of the Brothers shared their stories of how they became part of the Brotherhood and the service they had performed since then, which was very inspiring to hear.
For our last day of service, we went to the Brilla School Network in the Mott Haven neighborhood of the South Bronx. This is the poorest congressional district in New York, with high levels of crime and respiratory illnesses. Brilla is a public charter school for grades K-8 that looks to meet the needs of the district’s children. They serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner, because for many kids this is their only source of food for the day, and each class is named after a college to familiarize the students with the many colleges that could be available to them if they continue to work hard.
When we arrived at the school, we were split up to help out in different grade levels. In the middle school, we helped organize their independent reading books for a standardized test they had coming up and tutored students in math. At an assembly, school spirit was on full display as each class created a cheer for the college they were named after. The kids I met were very excited to tell me about their school as well as to hear about DC.
On our last day, we went sightseeing in Manhattan before our drive back. One of the Brothers from our house, Brother Michael, was generous enough to give us a tour. We rode on the Staten Island ferry to see a panoramic view of the city and the Statue of Liberty and had lunch in Battery Park. Then we walked around Wall Street, saw the 9/11 Memorial, and ended in Chinatown.
Overall, the service trip to the Bronx was a fun and rewarding experience. I felt like it was a very different spring break than I would have normally had, and I would encourage all students to apply for a service trip.