Students get first-hand look at homelessness during spring break trip to D.C.

For many students, spring break is a chance to take off for exotic beaches and get a respite from the dreaded polar vortex, or head home and hang out with friends, or decompress from midterms and leisurely catch up on class work. But for a group of Penn State New Kensington students, it was a golden opportunity to give back to the community and learn first-hand about homelessness and poverty.

Four students -- sophomores Corey Bobak, Mikaela Dunegan and Samantha Muhhuku; and freshman Sandra Muhhuku, along with Lauren Blum, assistant to the director of student affairs -- traveled to Washington, D.C., for a community service project, officially billed as the Alternative Spring Break Trip. They performed a variety of functions at food banks and soup kitchens throughout the nation’s capital.

The Muhhuku sisters are international students from Uganda. Poverty is rampant in their country, but they didn’t grasp the extent of poverty in the United States until visiting Washington. For them, it was an eye-opening experience that repudiated stereotypes about homeless people.

“Hunger and homelessness is something I've seen in its raw form, being from a country that is considered third world,” said Sandra, a petroleum engineering major. “It is something I didn't think a country like the U.S. suffers from. I wanted to be able to make a difference, however small.”

“It seemed like a good opportunity to learn about poverty, hunger and homelessness, and to give back to the community,” said Samantha, a biomedical engineering technology major who earns her associate degree in May.

The New Kensington students were joined by students from Penn State DuBois. During the eight-day journey, the students worked at community agencies, including Capital Area Food Bank; DC Central Kitchen; A Wider Circle, a nonprofit organization which provides beds and other furnishing to needy families; and Thrive DC, a community group that provides homeless individuals with a range of services to help stabilize their lives.

“I've never been exposed to people experiencing homelessness and poverty, so I wanted to be able to understand their situations better,” said Dunegan, who is studying in the health and human development program.

All of the students were partial to working at Thrive DC because it afforded them the opportunity to talk with the people they were helping. Personal contact was of the utmost importance to both the volunteers and the people served.

“Something important that we learned was that so many of the people who are homeless just want to be acknowledged by strangers, such as a hello and making simple eye contact with them," said Dunegan, a recipient of the campus’ Shaffer Family Trustee Matching Scholarship.

“At the DC Central Kitchen and Capitol Area Food Bank, we didn't get to see who we were helping because it was more like a distribution center,” said Bobak, a business major who is headed to Penn State University Park in the fall. “At Thrive DC, I was able to see how the people benefited from the work at the other organizations because they were served the food we made at the kitchen and the items we packaged at the food bank. I had the chance to talk with the clients that the organizations serve.”

Sandra Muhhuku and Dunegan were tuned in to the societal aspects of poverty. By talking and listening to the people who are denizens of the street, they got a better understanding of those dealing with economic crisis and housing instability on a daily basis. The homeless are not a homogeneous group.

“Thrive DC was an incredibly life changing place for me,” said Muhhuku, who grew up in Kampala, the capital of Uganda. “It opened up my eyes to stereotypes about these people. I got to talk to some of them, and hearing their stories was great.

“It is most important  to identify them as being human beings before labeling them as homeless people,” said Dunegan, a resident of Plum Borough. “We had free range to talk with people after they finished eating."

The trip was not all work as the students experienced some of Washington’s ubiquitous tourist attractions including the American History Museum, Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Vietnam War Memorial and the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. When not volunteering or sightseeing, the New Kensington contingent hung out at the hostel with their fellow Penn Staters from the DuBois campus.

“I got to know more about the students from DuBois, and we started to really feel like a family,” said Bobak, a product of Hempfield High School. “We even started calling ourselves DuKen.”

New Kensington-DuBois collaborations are not unique. To honor Martin Luther King Jr., the two campuses, along with the four other Penn State campuses in western Pennsylvania, annually take on community service projects at local nonprofit agencies. Areas served rotate among the six campuses. New Kensington hosted the event in 2012, and more than 75 students traveled in groups to various community organizations in the area, including Habitat for Humanity Restore, Alle-Kiski Faith in Action and Alle-Kiski Valley Historical Society. DuBois hosted the activity, called “Make it a Day On, Not a Day Off,” last year.

A previous out-of-state service project by the campus was to South Dakota two years ago. Students, staff and faculty installed computers at a women’s shelter and a children’s home, spent time with children at a Native American school, and learned about the history and culture of the area.

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Last Updated April 30, 2014