Despite having had exposure to poor people in her home country of Nepal, Apekshya Prasai ’16 said she was stunned when she arrived at Bowdoin and witnessed the suffering of some of Maine’s homeless.
Last fall, Prasai volunteered to do community service on her first-year orientation trip, and then she signed up to participate in a January winter-break program focused on hunger and homelessness. Both these trips were offered through Bowdoin’s McKeen Center for the Common Good.
"For me, it was a shocking experience," Prasai said, taking a break on a recent morning at Portland’s Preble Street Resource Center, which feeds, clothes and shelters the homeless. "I come from Nepal, and this is the last thing I expected to see here. It is hard for me to connect poverty and homelessness with white America."
Prasai and seven other students spent last week volunteering at Preble Street. They helped where they were needed, and so prepared meals, organized donated clothes to be given away, and conducted surveys with some of the homeless clients.
They were involved in one of two Alternative Winter Break programs. Theirs was focused on hunger and homelessness, and organized and led by students Phui Yi Kong ’15 and Olivia Paone ’15. The other AWB trip focused on immigrant and refugee education. The experiences gave students something meaningful to do over their vacation, as well as introduced many of them to nonprofits where they could continue to volunteer throughout the school year.
Describing what motivated her to lead her trip, Kong said, "I had a good relationship with Preble Street and wanted other students to have a good relationship as well." Mark Swann, Class of 1984, is the executive director of Preble Street, and many Bowdoin students get involved with its programs.
Paone participated on an Alternative Spring Break trip last year, and said she co-led the hunger and homelessness winter trip because she wanted to learn more about poverty. "It hit me what a different world this is in America, one we [at Bowdoin] don’t really experience."
Robbie Harrison ’14 and Erin St. Peter ’13 organized and led the AWB program on immigrant and refugee education. They and five other students volunteered last week at several Portland organizations that provide language or skills classes to immigrants and refugees. These nonprofits include the Portland Housing Authority, Portland Adult Education, Lyman Moore Middle School and Community Financial Literacy.
During the school year, Harrison regularly volunteers at Portland Adult Education and St. Peter volunteers at Portland Housing Authority. "We had connections that made planning this trip easier," St. Peter said. Harrison added, "I like the time I spend at the organizations volunteering and liked the idea of bringing a group."
Last week at Community Financial Literacy, which provides financial courses and mentoring to immigrants and refugees, the Bowdoin students split into groups to tackle different projects.
Harrison and June Guo ’16 edited and wrote grant proposals. Jess Caron ’13 and St. Peter helped revise the organization’s annual report, and Rachel Pollinger ’15 compiled student course evaluations. Caitlin Greenwood ’15 and Juliet Eyraud ’16 edited promotional videos of student testimonies to post on the organization’s website.
Claude Rwaganje, executive director of Community Financial Literacy, said the Bowdoin students who volunteer during winter break provide a timely service: They help him prepare for his annual meeting by working on the yearly report and organizing data to present to funders. "They are very skilled," he said. "In anticipation for our annual meeting in April, everything will be ready."
He also pointed out the value of such work for the Bowdoin students. "They learn what we are doing and how they can become a resource for refugees in the community," he said.