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Learning by Doing: March Break in Mississippi

Web posted on March 05, 2014

By Emily Blake

Last week I had the amazing opportunity to travel to Hattiesburg, Mississippi with a group of University of Guelph students as part of a volunteer learning trip with Project Serve Canada. Not only did I enjoy the warm weather, I learned a lot about the Civil Rights movement, was able to give back to the community, and make new friends.

Project Serve Canada takes place every winter during the University of Guelph's reading week. Programs are based around themes including Aboriginal communities, race and poverty, sexual health education and inner city communities. Students travel to Hattiesburg, Mississippi; Nawash, Ontario; Downtown East Side, Vancouver, B.C; or stay in Guelph to volunteer with community organizations.

Previous trips to Hattiesburg have focused on Hurricane Katrina relief and cleanup efforts. Although the cleanup is officially over, Guelph has maintained its partnership with the University of Southern Mississippi and students now volunteer at three different community placements; Hawkins Elementary School, Edward Street Fellowship and Carpenter's Helper. Last year students also helped assist with cleanup from a tornado that affected the area a week before their arrival.

Our trip focused on the theme of race and poverty, so we began our visit with the Freedom Summer of '64 tour, now celebrating its 50th anniversary. `Freedom Summer' refers to the civil rights activism during this period that focused on achieving social, political and economic equality in the United States. We were privileged to have civil rights activist Peggy Jean Carter as our guide who explained the significance of the sites we visited and shared personal stories. She is an inspiring and lovely woman, and I feel humbled to have met her.

On the tour we were able to meet the Dahmer family who were also active in the civil rights movement in Hattiesburg. Vernon Dahmer was an influential civil rights leader and president of the local branch of the NAACP who strongly advocated that African Americans register to vote. He was tragically killed defending him family from a gunfire and firebomb attack by the KKK in 1966.

On our second day in Mississippi we began our volunteer placements. I volunteered with Carpenters Helper, a non-profit organization that corrects housing conditions for people who lack the resources or abilities to do so themselves. We constructed a ramp for a local woman who was no longer able to use the stairs for her home. We learned a lot about carpentry, got some exercise, and enjoyed spending time in the sun. It was also wonderful to see how happy the homeowners were with the completed ramp and I loved bonding with my team members.

Other members of our group assisted students in the classroom and in the after school program at Hawkins Elementary School. Others also volunteered at Edward Street Fellowship, which has a community garden, food bank and soup kitchen. Everyone in our group remarked that there placements were very rewarding and we all learned a lot and made strong connections with one another and community members.

After a couple days of hard work at our volunteer placements, we had the opportunity to explore the French Quarter in New Orleans for a day. I had a great time enjoying the local cuisine including seafood and candied pralines, while other people enjoyed the beignets, oysters, and gumbo with alligator meat. I loved seeing all of the colourful houses decorated for Mardi Gras and we even saw the home that Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie own in the area. I also enjoyed browsing the shops in the market and talking to the friendly vendors.

I had a wonderful time in Mississippi and enjoyed the southern hospitality of our hosts at the University of Southern Mississippi. I made great connections with my group members as well as local people and learned a lot about the city and the civil rights movement. I was also glad to have made a positive impact in one family's life by making their home more accessible.