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.
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."