by LAURA HAYES
While some students may spend their summer vacation hanging out with their friends at the pool or catching up on some well-deserved rest, a group of Cotter students spent a week of their summer vacation tending gardens and painting schools in Benton Harbor, Mich.
Just seeing the look on people’s faces made the work worth it, the students said. “Even though we were doing small tasks, it made an impact on the community of Benton Harbor and the people there,” sophomore Tyler Nachtigal stated.
The students traveled to Benton Harbor as part of Cotter’s Cross-Cultural Ministry Project (CCMP). According to Campus Minister and teacher Marisa Corcoran, the program began in 1995 under former Cotter President Jim Devine as a way for students to experience other cultures. During the first trip, students traveled to Ireland, and several years later, the focus of the trips shifted to service.
“Jim Devine knew in ’95 that Winona is a great community … but going outside of your way of living and your comfort zone and the way you have grown up is so great for people,” Corcoran said, adding that it also made students reflect on what they need in life.
There are four CCMP trips a year — two week-long trips in the summer and two weekend visits during the school year — and anywhere from 40 to 50 students attend each trip. One summer trip is open to underclassmen and the other to upperclassmen. The Benton Harbor service trip was open to freshman and sophomores, and Corcoran said these students typically travel to either Chicago, Ill.; St. Louis, Mo.; or Benton Harbor. Juniors and seniors usually travel to Jerusalem Farm in Kansas City, Mo. While the summer trips like the recent trip to Benton Harbor last a week, Corcoran calls the weekend trips an “urban plunge” where students go to either the Twin Cities or Milwaukee, Wis, opening the service trips to international students who frequently go home during the summer.
CCMP typically travels to places with already-established organizations in a community such as Youthworks in Benton Harbor. Corcoran said she fell in love with Benton Harbor when she traveled there with CCMP. “It’s a city that has seen a lot of hardship, but there’s so much hope,” Corcoran said. Riots rocked the city in 2003 after an African-American motorcyclist was pursued by police and fatally crashed into a building, putting Benton Harbor in the national news. “I walk in thinking that it was pretty hopeless and I walked away thinking it was a place of great hope,” Corcoran said.
Junior Abbey Allen had already been on CCMP’s trip to Chicago last year, but she admitted she was nervous at first driving into Benton Harbor after seeing boarded up windows on the outskirts of the city and hearing from chaperones about violence in the city. However, once the bus rolled into the heart of Benton Harbor, junior Jack Gardner said it was clear that the residents cared about their city. “They’re very community-driven and unselfish. They’re very welcoming,” Allen said. “When you get to really meet these people, you see past it all and see how driven the people are to better their lives.”
On one of the days, Gardner and some of the other students visited a local park filled with people playing basketball. “Right when we got there, they said, ‘Come on, guys! Come play,’” he remembered. Everyone wanted to hear about the work that the students were doing and shared their hopes to revitalize the community, he added.
The students were divided into three groups and each helped throughout the city. Some of the students spent time at the local Boys and Girls Club and senior centers while others helped turn soil and plant vegetables in a community garden. Armed with paintbrushes, students painted houses and schools. “Even though we didn’t get to see the kids go into [the school], just the impact of them getting to walk into a new school is exciting,” Allen said. While students may not fully understand what life is like for Benton Harbor residents, Corcoran said the service trip gave them a glimpse of their lives.
Growing up, Corcoran frequently went on service trips, which she said helped her develop her faith. She hoped the students similarly strengthened their faith and realized what they needed in life. Do you feel like you grew as a person? Yes, Allen said. “I realized how fortunate I am to grow up in this city with parents who support me,” she explained.