Breaking the Cycle

LBSU students use Alternative Spring Break to help urban neighborhoods

A class photo of all students and faculty who participated. Courtesy of Tia Suray/Contributor

By Dr. Bonnie Gasior Professor of Spanish & Faculty Athletics Representative

Whether you’re a student or a faculty member, you have probably heard of Alternative Spring Break. On this campus, the opportunity has traditionally been associated with New Orleans and Habitat for Humanity, both responses to Hurricane Katrina. This year, however, 14 students and two faculty members, Dr. Chris Warren and I, ventured to the Pittsburgh area.

Although a Spanish professor by training, I decided to build our course and trip around the broad topic of urban poverty within the specific region of Appalachia, which was both challenging and invigorating. Most people do not realize that three-fourths of Pennsylvania is part of the Appalachian region, and nowhere are the Appalachian realities more palpable than in the suburb of McKees Rocks, where we spent the week tapping into our humanity. We met with students at the local high school, conducted housing surveys with residents, volunteered with teens in an afterschool program and wrote grant proposals for the Community Development Center. I felt “elevation, the “high” we feel upon witnessing others interact with strangers in kind way’s, all weekend long watching my class engage with residents in their doorway, with stakeholders in the community and to some extent, with each other. This is what service-learning is all about.

Speaking to students at Sto-Rox High School. Courtesy of Laurel Lam/Contributor

By Laurel Lam Contributor

Blighted buildings and rows of condemned units line some of the streets in McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania. When knocking down a dilapidated property costs hundreds of thousands of dollars and costs even more to restore, “The Rocks,” an impoverished borough, reluctantly accepts defeat by leaving the derelict property as it is.

Abandoned residential units, businesses, churches and schools are left to fester as havens for squatters, transients, rodents and waste. They are reduced to eyesores, putting a damper on the image of McKees Rocks and influencing the way some individuals treat the rest of the community.

However, this great challenge can also be viewed as a great opportunity. As an outsider from what might seem like an entirely different world, the California suburbs, I had the opportunity to offer my services through community development and educational outreach in a manner that was respectful of their culture and circumstances.

My colleagues and I partnered with the McKees Rocks Community Development Corporation to engage with the residents about their thoughts on the future of the community. The staff at MRCDC are working tirelessly on a development plan they hope will generate revenue for the borough. We also connected with students at the local high school, where we shared advice and words of encouragement to all of those interested in pursuing higher education.

I embarked on this trip because I wanted to serve an area that might otherwise be forgotten. Alternative Spring Break allowed me to cultivate an empathetic connection with the people who live in urban poverty. Simply stated, the most veritable way to understand how these people experience day-to-day life is by living and working among them, a rare prospect that the program offers. 

As I continue to learn and grow beyond my undergraduate career, this trip will be remembered as my first major stepping stone in improving the lives of many.

An abandoned home in Mckees Rock, PA. Courtesy of Kiera Peck/Contributor

By Kiera Peck Contributor

“Condemned: Dangerous and Unsafe” signs gleam against the backdrops of abandoned homes. Wrappers, bottles, cans, and boxes create their own miniature city as consumers toss their trash onto a neighbor’s yard. Spotting a trash can is as rare as winning the lottery; what once stood a beautiful red brick building now towers a deadly monster. Black mold, broken glass and fire-devastated homes blanket the area. Residents find themselves ensnared in a cycle of poverty, a ripple effect of incessant poverty consuming all aspects of life. Despite all this, buried deep within the confines of the Mckees Rocks community lies the potential of a thriving town.

As we begin our service-learning experience in McKees Rocks, we quickly see a town with dreams for a better future. People wish to escape the cycle of poverty and see their town flourish. Instead of a morning stroll past condemned signs, they yearn for a walk past livable housing. Streets would be free of trash and ridden of crime. An economically bright future would be brought by booming small business and a bustling downtown. They envision a town where they can own their homes and their kids can excel past the adversity that they have faced.

Learning the difference between blighted homes and their impact on the community. Courtesy of Tia Suray/Contributor

The anecdotes we hear during our Alternative Spring Break trip detail a desire for a better way of life. However, fatalism—the belief that a situation is fixed and that change is a myth—seeps through every story. Without people directly saying it, their inaction speak volumes: nothing has ever changed, nothing ever will. It is the status quo to not take action because of inevitable poverty. As Dr. Gasior stated in class, “Just because a community needs change, does not mean that they are ready to accept that change.”

The largest battle that McKees Rocks faces is to change that status quo, to have the community participate in growth and make the changes that the town desires. As Alternative Spring Break participants, we were able to bring awareness of that need. Our motto was to plant seeds of change. We were able to plant a seed of drive amongst local college-bound students, seeds of curiosity amongst surveyed residents, seeds of inspiration amongst those who now seek involvement and a seed of hope that change may come. I sincerely hope that the McKees Rocks community begins to plant their own seeds and continues to water and care for them because the thriving town they desire is attainable.