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Caring course work

February 28, 2011

Caring course work

Anna McCracken ’14 is preparing to hand out prepackaged salad in the bottom level of Food Connections – one of the services housed in the Catholic Community Services building by St. Leo’s Catholic Church in Hilltop Tacoma. Beside her other volunteers are distributing canned food, produce, bread and other items. As a line of people coming for food file through, a man stops at McCracken’s spot.

He asks, “What’s this?”

“It’s salad,” McCracken says, a global studies and political science major from Spanaway, Wash.

“It doesn’t look very good,” the man responds as he gazes on the bag of lettuce. Wilted brown seems to be taking over the green of the produce.

“It’s a little old, but really it’s still good,” McCracken says.

“Would you eat it?” asks the man bluntly.

McCracken pauses unsure what to say, so she just nods in agreement silently and the man continues down the line.

“I thought about it and he was right,” McCracken said. “I wouldn’t eat that.

“Sometimes saying nothing can be the best thing to do,” she said.

She threw away the salad. For her it was a lesson in self-worth.

“Before I would have thought you take what you can get,” McCracken said. “All people need self-worth. For him it was that salad.”

For 15 days, over three weeks during J-Term, 19 PLU students volunteered in shelters, children programs and food service programs for the homeless in the Hilltop community of Tacoma. The students worked in the Hospitality Kitchen, Food Connections, the Nativity House, Tacoma Community Center and the Tacoma Rescue Mission. The students came to make a difference, but the impact of the experience ended up changing how they see the world.

“For me it was about learning how exactly we can be helpful to other people,” McCracken said. “Being present is the most important thing we can do.”

“It opened my eyes to how community and how relationships are truly valuable,” said Nicole Gallego ’11, sociology major from Federal Way, Wash. “The experience just took it to a deeper level. Not just the Hilltop, but my own stereotypes and hierarchy of what’s important in my life.

“I like to think that what we’ve learned the most is to be present,” McCracken said. “Before I think we overlooked people.”

The past of the Hilltop is riddled with violence, drugs and the worst that comes from poverty.  Ten years ago, Catholic Community Services took over operations of the Hospitality Kitchen. It, along with the surrounding streets and alleys, had become a haven of drug dealers, drug users, and prostitution and gang violence.

“It had become the top place for drug sales in Pierce County,” said Jim Anderson, director of the Hospitality Kitchen. “This had become a scary place.”

The Hospitality Kitchen, along with the streets and alleys are much different now, he said.

On the students’ first day, Rev. David Alger, who leads the J-Term course, took the students on a van tour of Hilltop and the Eastside of Tacoma. Before their journey was finished, he dropped them off at one end of Hilltop and told them to walk through the community to the other side. They were to give themselves a tour.

“I thought of it as a dark scary alley with danger around every corner,” said Rebecca Denning ’13, biology major from Bigfork, Mont.

Many of them had never been in the area before and had no idea what to expect.

“I asked them to ‘Do what you’d do to learn about places,'” Alger said. “It’s wonderful to hear them talk about their experiences.”

So, they stopped by stores and spoke to people, but mostly hurried along not knowing what Alger meant.

“In class we talked about things sort of theoretically,” said Kathy Keys, ’11, a social work major, from Anchorage, Alaska. “Classroom experiences are important, but I think service components outside of the class are also very important. I think life experience is the greatest way to learn something.”

For the Tacoma Community Center, students surveyed the area for services or opportunities that may help the homeless and in need.

“A lot of the students are first-years and they don’t know a lot about it,” Keys said. “It starts them thinking about a bigger world.”