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Last March, a group of Mount Holyoke students embarked on a spring-break tour of the nation's capital with an itinerary far more urgent than viewing cherry blossoms, monuments, and museums. Senator Edward Kennedy's Hunger Relief Act was before Congress, and the group, eager to see it passed, was heeding that famous call to service made by another Kennedy nearly four decades ago: "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country."

What the women did, as participants in Mount Holyoke's Service and Leadership Odyssey program (SLO), took them from the tables of the poor in D.C.'s soup kitchens to the corridors of power on Capitol Hill. Their work preparing and serving lunches for the hungry even drew the attention of USA Today, which ran an article titled "Students Take a Break to Do Good" in its March 20 issue.

Elizabeth ("Liddy") A. Gerchman '02 stirs grits at a Washington, D.C. soup kitchen.

On the Hill, they lobbied Massachusetts Congressman Richard Neal to support a bill that would strengthen the Food Stamp Program and assist emergency food providers. Neal, who became a cosponsor of the bill, later credited the women with drawing attention to the legislation. Their ambitious six-day agenda also included a briefing with a representative from Bread for the World (a grassroots advocacy network) and a visit to the Capital Area Community Food Bank to learn about food distribution. In addition, they shared stories with homeless people and took up mops and rakes to spruce up a teen outreach facility. Accompanying the twelve students were Rochelle Calhoun '83, associate dean of the College, and Anita Magovern, College chaplain.

The SLO program, created two years ago by Calhoun and Andrea Ayvazian, dean of religious life at the College, provides opportunities for a diverse group of Mount Holyoke students to "do something active together--to share space with the goal of bridging differences and establishing connections," says Calhoun. What they learned this year, she says, is that "service can be its own reward." The trip to D.C. confirmed that enrichment comes to those at both ends of the ladle.

Alessandra R. Folz '01 learned that "even people with graduate degrees can go hungry." The trip made her feel more vulnerable and more interested in a political life. "The white-picket-fence system falls apart; one thing goes wrong and it could be you. Who's going to represent you? Who's going to be out there helping me?"

Eissa M. Villasenor '02 grew up in an inner-city community in Los Angeles, with "huge economic discrepancies" and was especially struck by the contrasts she observed in the short distance "from the soup kitchens to the Hill." Nothing prepared her for the decay and poverty beyond the grand facades of Constitution and Pennsylvania Avenues. Now a politics major, she was impressed with Congressman Neal's willingness to listen to the SLO group.

For Elizabeth "Liddy" A. Gerchman '02, the trip was "somewhat of a spiritual pilgrimage--it had a great effect on me as a person." Seeing people in their teens and early twenties at the soup kitchen made her better appreciate her own privilege, she says. Last year, Gerchman joined the SLO group for another "eye-opening" volunteer experience--helping to rebuild a church in Birmingham, Alabama, after a rash of arson fires. While the group learned how to install Sheetrock, the trip also provided valuable lessons in American history. The itinerary included the museums and prominent sites of the Civil Rights era.

Students are selected for SLO by application. In preparation for the D.C. sojourn, the group attended a lecture on poverty and taxation issues and engaged in related research on the Web. Participants kept journals during the trip and each evening concluded with a period of reflection. "Ultimately," says Calhoun, "the students are returning with changed perspectives. They're learning that individuals can make a difference. They've been the recipients of the gift that comes from giving service, and it's that kind of gift that builds leaders."



Copyright © 2000 Mount Holyoke College. This page created and maintained by Don St. John. Last modified on September 1, 2000.