Recently, I’ve tried to seize every opportunity I can to explore new places, and because my college places an emphasis on service, I’ve also incorporated volunteering into my life more. Putting these two interests together, it seemed obvious to me that I should ditch snowy New Hampshire for spring break and apply to Emmanuel’s Alternative Spring Break program. I was accepted and was placed on the Phoenix, Arizona trip, which centers around serving the homeless/in-need population of this area. If you’re interested in what my trip was like or want to apply to a similar program, I’ve detailed what my week in Arizona was like to give you an idea of what ASB is all about!
This was an interesting place to serve because it’s ILLEGAL to be homeless in Phoenix. I’m guessing someone thought “if we make homelessness illegal, there won’t be homeless people anymore,” but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Phoenix is also experiencing a lot of gentrification right now which is renovating an urban area to be more appealing to people of higher social classes. At a glance, making improvements and adding cool buildings and businesses seems great, but it increases the cost of living in these areas and displaces people with lower incomes and financial struggles. People often say homeless/in need people need to get jobs, but in many situations they do have jobs that don’t pay enough for them to financially keep up in a rapidly developing area. Also, it’s extremely difficult to go through the job application process exhausted, hungry, emotionally drained, and lacking basic resources like work clothes and a home address to write on applications. I could discuss these issues for like a million pages, but this is just to give you an overall picture of the problems we tried to help combat during our trip.
Where we stayed and served
Where we stayed
We stayed in a BEAUTIFUL Catholic monastery alongside two Sisters who were super welcoming and nice. We had a kitchen and were split up into a few bedrooms, with a bathroom for every two rooms. My favorite part of the monastery was outside, where there was a playground, seating, a comfy swing, and tons of free space and nature which I definitely took advantage of while enjoying the good weather. They also held the most wholesome church service ever where the priest preached putting yourself in the shoes of others instead of judging them for things like abortion or being repeatedly put into jail because of flaws in our judicial system which was refreshing. Overall, this was the perfect place to spend ASB and really tied our trip together.
Where we served
Members of our trip were split into two groups to serve in two places: Andre House and The Society of St. Vincent De Paul. These organizations are in the same general area and both share the goal of helping those in need, but are very different from each other. I served at St. Vincent De Paul in a few of their different locations, which I will talk about as I go through my week below!
Getting settled in
On Sunday, we all headed to Dunks (even on the other side of the country you’ll catch me there) for breakfast. After that, we explored the monastery and the surrounding neighborhood, which was cool because people literally had cactuses twice the size of us casually in their yards. Then we had the church service I mentioned earlier and they sang everything with great harmonies, even the Our Father, so I was jamming out.
Our first night of service!
Later that day we had our first night volunteering in one of St. Vincent’s smaller kitchens, but they didn’t think they had latex free gloves (which I need bec of allergies), so I mostly cleaned instead of preparing and serving meals. When guests started arriving, I got to greet them and everyone was so nice and open about their lives and experiences. When we were done, we made pasta for dinner at the monastery and our two groups joined back together to reflect on our days and discuss our hopes and fears for the upcoming week.
St. Vincent Headquarters
We started Monday by going to St. Vincent’s main headquarters where we sorted donations into snack and lunch packs. The people we worked with here were my favorite people from the entire trip! Everyone was hilarious and so passionate about what they were doing, from making meals, to helping manage the location. We then took a break for a tour of the location which included some beautiful gardens that helped with sustainability! After that, we ate in the dining room and the food was amazing. After helping out a bit more, we had a break and stopped to get some juice and I had a rice drink that was super good!
Back to the location from the previous night
Later that night, we served dinner at the same location as the night before, and this time I had gloves so I got to help make and serve food. We were double booked with a church group of elderly people who were not very happy to be serving with us because they felt overcrowded. This amongst other things was one of the first times I had a difficult time serving with others and learned that some people don’t have the “all in this together” attitude I try to foster when I serve, but I still had a great time getting to know the guests. When we returned back to the monastery, we made dinner together again and had a reflection outside, which included listening to our trip song and discussing our privilege.
Tuesday morning we had to be up early to head back to the main headquarters. We started our day by helping in the garden, and I was a little triggered from the years of do-it-yourself yard renovations my family subjected me to, but it was nice to be out in the fresh air. We then met the woman who was organizing our week and she was pretty nice.
Next, we organized all of the holiday decoration donations St. Vincent got, and because they can’t have private labels on them, we crossed those out with sharpies. At the end of helping, the woman in charge of this project called us her angels and gave us a prayer and small wooden token to show her appreciation and it made my day. She really inspired me to be more intentional with my interactions with everyone, including strangers, and to see the angels in everyone (as cheesy as that sounds). We then ate in the cafeteria for lunch and it was good again!
The last project we had that day was going to a thrift store affiliated with St. Vincent and helping with whatever they needed. I got to learn how to use a pricing gun which I enjoyed, and we all found some cute clothes for ourselves at the end!
A much-needed coffee break
After service, we went to Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, which I guess is a popular chain out West but I hadn’t heard of it before. It was great and I recommend it if you ever find yourself in Arizona! For dinner we did Taco Tuesday and you can’t go wrong with that!
A new location
Wednesday was eventful for sure! We started the day by getting up even earlier than the morning before to do breakfast at a larger kitchen location. This was my favorite meal I served because by helping people carry their food over to their table and making coffee runs, I really got to interact with the guests and hear their stories. We also realized one woman we were volunteering with was an Emmanuel alumni and she was amazing! After breakfast, we took a tour of this location, which also included a nice garden, and we made cards for the guests which I, an avid card writer, loved.
Then my body started to hate me…
After this, we had some free time where we traveled into the nicer part of Phoenix (remember that gentrification I mentioned earlier?) to grab some food. I got a coffee and an acai bowl so I was feeling pretty satisfied. When we returned, we went to a small Ash Wednesday service and this is where things started to go a little downhill for me. I am definitely someone that needs their naps, gets sick and run down when overwhelmed/doing physical work, and I 100% need to get allergy tested because things got funky from here on out. It was hot during the service so many people started to feel light headed, but I was getting dizzy, feverish, nauseous and a little voice in my head told me I was going to s*** myself at any second. After the service, instead of helping out at the next site, I was driven back to the monastery where I rested and cried to my mom.
Not only was I disappointed about not being able to fully serve, it was also looking like I was going to miss our tourist outing to Old Scottsdale. Whenever these episodes happen to me, which they usually do when I travel, they go away after a few hours so of course I started to perk up. Everyone was already gone as I started to feel better, but I checked Uber and had some sort of discount that made it really cheap to travel and meet up with them so I did! My driver was great, Old Scottsdale was super cute, and I made it in time for dinner at a wonderful Mexican restaurant with home made guac and live music. Overall, a win.
Back to the garden
Thursday was our last day of serving and our last super early morning! We were back in the garden we first helped out in and did weeding which was surprisingly cathartic. We listened to music and yeah, my back felt like an old lady’s, but it was fun.
Oh boy people, I don’t even know how to write about this part but ~here it comes~. We did lunch at the place we served breakfast at Wednesday and we were paired with a Church group who at first seemed nice. That lasted until guests actually started showing up, which lead us to what I will call the Dessert Debacle. Basically there were tons of desserts and one elderly man was in charge of distributing them onto trays. It started going downhill when this man was giving out all different portions, not letting people choose what ones they wanted from a huge variety, and making people take full plates of food when they asked for just dessert to save money even though they ended up just throwing out their food and keeping the dessert which is a HUGE waste of money. Not only did he do this, he was rude to guests that asked for more and saved the best desserts for himself and his church friends to have after! It’s so dehumanizing for people already struggling so much to not even get an extra cookie when there’s a surplus of them and to have no freedom of choice in what they get. He also joked to the homeless guests about charging them money and asking if they had any. Also, a woman from his group defended him saying that homelessness and addiction are choices which, if you have any grasp on our world, you know it’s way more complicated than that. We tried to secretly give out desserts, and over time we got our way and could serve more of them. This taught me that some people really just volunteer to feel worthy in the eyes of God not because they possess any basic compassion for people, and it also taught me to confront bad volunteer behavior and to advocate for others unapologetically. I was so proud of my group for working as a team.
Shelter living conditions and what resources are here for people
After this and after we cooled off, we took a tour of the main campus of the homeless shelter we visited. It kind of reminded me of a prison, which I didn’t like, but they did have awesome resources like doctors, dentists, a post office to use as an address for job applications, plans to help people find housing and a place where people could have IDs made which also helps them apply for jobs and houses. This gave me a lot of perspective on different ways to combat homelessness, but also on what we as a country still need to improve on.
For lunch we had Chick Fil A, which I had never had before, and it was awesome!!!! Definitely order their special sauce.
Another Thrift Store
To conclude the day, we visited another thrift store where we did some organizing and cleaning. My favorite part was getting to dress up a mannequin and use my sense of style, and I also found some more cute clothes! When we got back to the monastery, we had breakfast for dinner!
On Friday, we were supposed to go to Sedona, but it was raining so we went to Tucson instead. It was such a cute city with a different vibe from Phoenix, and I enjoyed looking around at the little shops. My favorite part was lunch. We went to a restaurant called Cafe 54 which employs adults in mental health recovery. The food was awesome and each table number came with a picture of a celebrity and what mental illnesses they had, which I thought was really cool.
After leaving Tucson, we got changed and climbed a beautiful hill (I considered it more of a mountain after struggling to climb it). There were cactuses as far as the eye could see, the view was full of both nature and cities, and the weather was perfect!
An interesting place
Finally, we had dinner at this wild pizza place filled with loud teenage basketball players and blaring rap music and I loved every second of it.
I climbed a mountain and I turned around
Our last day 😦 After cleaning up, we drove up another mountain to take pictures and have our final reflection, which included silent affirmations, what we wanted to leave and take back from Phoenix, and reading letters from our fellow trip members and a chosen loved one back home. This was a highly emotional time, and what an impactful trip it was was sinking in.
In-N-Out before heading out
Before heading to the airport for our red eye flight, I had my first experience with In-N-Out burger. I was surprised by how simple it was there considering all the basic pictures I’ve seen people take there, but the food was amazing!
In conclusion, through every up and down, I couldn’t have asked for a better spring break. Between a woman calling us her angels and meeting two guests named Angel, I felt a spiritual theme in this trip and recognized the cycle of humans helping and watching out for each other. I’m filled with so much gratitude that the cold weather and jet lag weren’t toooooooo terrible. I met some awesome people and I’m so grateful for the hard work and friendship of my group members! Thank you for reading, and let me know what you think!