On Thursday January 15th, a select group of students from the University of Tampa set their alarms for 4:30 A.M. to prepare for a leadership exchange program in Memphis, Tennessee. The leadership program at UT teamed up with the University of Memphis to provide community service to non profit organizations in both Memphis and Tampa.
One of the purposes of this immersion trip for students from UT and UM to dive into volunteer work, and learn about the homelessness/poverty in their cities. When in Memphis, we would room with a UMemphis student in their dorm, and when they come to Tampa, they would stay in ours.
“Leadership Exchange is an impactful experience for students to learn about the complexities of poverty in Tampa and Memphis, engage in direct service at various agencies, and broaden their worldview of social injustices, said Julie LeBlanc, the Assistant Director of Leadership at UT and one of the trip advisors.
“The students who participate in this year’s experience are committed to educating themselves and tackling poverty at the local level,” she added.
I was nervous. I didn’t know many people going on the trip, and I had never volunteered for anything without having the protection of my friends by my side. I decided to step out of my comfort zone, and sign up anyway. How bad could it be? I thought. If all things went wrong, at least I’d be in Tennessee.
Our first day in Memphis was a full day. Straight from the airport, we headed to a local homeless shelter to serve lunch. It was surprising to me how many people were there, and how each person was so grateful for a meal, that most of us wouldn’t think twice about. Given my class and work schedule, I rarely sit down for a meal. I often am carrying snacks so I can eat on the go, in a rush. I reminded myself to take a moment before I start each meal to appreciate the fact that I have the meal in front of me.
Senior biology major, Jennifer Allison said, “The Church Health Clinic was the most memorable, because of the impact it had on my desire to use my future career as a physician to help those in need.”
”Learning about the number of physicians and other healthcare workers that donate their time to this organization inspired me to look for ways to be involved with similar organizations in my own area,” Allison said.
Lifeline to Success was another memorable experience. We worked alongside ex-convicts to clean up the community of Frayser. It was important to me, because I believe all people deserve second chances. To hear their stories, and witness how these people have turned their life around to do good things, and give back to their community is an incredible thing. I felt humbled that they had opened their hearts to us, invested their trust in us, and allowed us to work alongside them to do good things for the community.
When we weren’t volunteering, we had a lot of free time to explore the city. What was amazing to me is that we came together as a group of strangers, but quickly bonded like a family. We could have easily went our own separate ways after our day was done, but we all still wanted to be together at the end of the day. The students at the University of Memphis were so kind to showcase their city, and brought us to local places that we probably would never have discovered on our own. We went to Graceland, crossed the state line into Arkansas, and laughed the entire way. It was really cold, but that didn’t stop us from enjoying an ice cream at Jerry’s.
The sense of community in Memphis felt a lot different than the sense of community in Tampa. I am in no means putting down Tampa, but from what I’ve witnessed in Memphis, people are a lot more vocal and willing to help out in anyway they can. This helped me to realize, that it doesn’t matter how much money you have, and you don’t have to write a big check in order to make an impact in your community. Whether it is spending the day tutoring children, cleaning up around the community, or delivering meals to those in need, there is something you can do right now, no matter what your current circumstance may be. We may be students, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have a lot to give. We have heart and we have time, if we’re willing to make it.
The Memphis community doesn’t write anyone off: single mothers, children, veterans, addicts, ex-cons, second chances are abundant. There are still good people in the world willing to donate their time and services to help people get back on their feet. Here, you are not defined by your circumstance. Bad things happen, but the community works together to get each person back on their feet as quickly as possible.
The trip was extremely inspiring. It reinforced the idea that although we may be college students, we can still make a huge difference in our communities, by taking small steps to improve wrongs. The students of the University of Tampa left Memphis feeling inspired and eager to see what lessons our own community can teach us about goodwill, and what we can do a little closer to home to improve the lives of those around us.
Once you arrive on campus for the first time, sometimes you are left to wonder if you made the right choice. Ultimately, we all pursue a higher education in hope of bettering ourselves, but sometimes we are so stuck on ourselves that we forget we are just one person. For me, the trip to Memphis was extremely humbling.
On Friday January 16, our group volunteered at Meals-on-Wheels (MIFA). As a college student, our meals are easily accessible, but for the people receiving meals from MIFA, it may be the only meal they will receive.
I’ve lost count of the number of times that I have been aggravated when one of the workers in the dining halls didn’t give me enough salad dressing or forgot sauce with my nuggets. I think we’ve all witnessed teens who cop an attitude because they accidentally got whole milk in their Starbucks coffee instead of soy milk. While delivering meals, most of the receiving families were standing at the door waiting for their meal to arrive.
We also visited Lifeline to Success. As we walked into the room, we were greeted by a group of adults doing the bunny hop. Of course when they asked us to join in, most of us were less than thrilled. This is so stupid, I thought folding my arms. We didn’t want to embarrass ourselves in front of a bunch of strangers. That was until the director, Mr. Brown, started speaking. We were shocked to find out that this was a group of ex-convicts.
I am ashamed to say that I judged them, because what I’ve come to realize is, these people are not their crime. After listening to their stories, we went out and cleaned up the streets in Frayser County with them. They want to show the students in the community they care about their neighborhood. Lifeline taught me that there are people out there who may not be in the best situations, but still wake up each day with the determination to better themselves and the world around them. So, as college students with bright futures ahead of us and becoming the next leaders of the world, we need to give back to the community now. Plus remember that bettering ourselves is equally important as helping others.
Kantana Buchanan, a Senior at UM majoring in Communications Studies said, “I loved experiencing a group of young people willing to step into the footsteps of others and become servant leaders in a community that we would otherwise never experience without this leadership exchange.”
Aside from the volunteer work, the students from the University of Memphis made this experience so wonderful. While packing for the trip I must admit I was not that excited: I did not want to give up shorts and flip-flops for 28 degree weather, I didn’t want to leave my friends, and I honestly thought it was going to be a boring trip. I could not have been more wrong. As cheesy as it is to say, we became a family. I love Tampa, but Memphis has a completely different vibe. It is not as pretty as Tampa on the outside, but the hearts of the people make it beautiful. We got to experience a snippet of that life through the students. They welcomed us into their homes and dorms on their break, and took us to their favorite hole-in-the-wall restaurants. Showed us around Beale Street (which is like Ybor but ten times better), crossed the Arkansas state line, and laughed until our sides hurt and tears were in our eyes. I have never experienced a love like this, nor have I ever been so sad to leave one place in my life.
Chanel Vanzant, a Senior International/Cultural Studies major was involved in the initial pilot of the Leadership Exchange in 2011 and is now a facilitator of the program. “There were hiccups and growing pains, but we kept working at it. It gets better and better.”
Vanzant is also excited about the University of Memphis students arrival in Tampa. “Each year we hear that Tampa doesn’t have a homelessness/poverty problem,” she said. “I’m anxious to show them there is a problem, and with their help continue to fix it.”
Departing from Memphis turned out to be harder than I initially thought, but knowing we will be reunited makes it easier. For the second immersion trip our group from UT will plan out the community service work and get to show the students from Memphis all over the Tampa/St. Petersburg area.
Overall, Memphis taught me a lot. The biggest lesson was sometimes you have to take a leap of faith and try something new. You can’t always follow the crowd, because then you’ll begin to miss out of some pretty big blessings in life. Giving back to those in need and finding a true community.