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Lending a helping hand

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Posted: Wednesday, March 19, 2014 9:00 am

SALAMANCA — Six students from Ithaca College chose Salamanca for their spring break destination last week for the purpose of furthering their education and gaining a broader perspective.

The group came to the Salamanca Youth Center as part of an alternative spring break program organized by the college.

“This is their fourth year doing this with us and they’re just awesome,” said Sandi Brundage, director of the Youth Center. “A while ago (Ithaca College) chose us to be one of their spring break sites and we’re happy to have them.”

The group’s faculty advisor, Kari Brossard Stoos, and Leah Galent, a second-time volunteer for the Salamanca program and a junior documentary film major, sat down with The Press to discuss their reasons for volunteering in Salamanca for their spring break.

“The alternative spring break program is really for colleges all over the U.S. but Ithaca has a branch in which they plan five trips and send groups of students all around the country,” said Galent. “We have groups in Tennessee, Virginia, Washington D.C. and Western New York.

“Our main goal is to hang out with the kids at the Youth Center and spend time with them. While we’ve been here we’ve also been learning about the area so we went to the Seneca (Iroquois National) Museum, the library, we went on a tour of the area with Sandi, so it’s been kind of an educational/volunteer experience for everybody.”

Stoos, an assistant professor at Ithaca College in the Department of Health Promotion and Physical Education, explained the trip was incorporated with an educational theme, which each student chooses upon entering the university.

“Part of what Ithaca College does is we center our curriculum around themes. So each student picks a theme to model their curriculum around. Each spring break trip has an accompanying theme,” said Stoos. “Ours is ‘Identities,’ so the theme is to really identify with the culture and what the children identify as. … It’s sort of a new way to think about general education requirements. I believe this trip also falls under the ‘Mind, Body, Spirit’ theme, how you connect to spirituality and the ways of thinking.”

For the volunteer portion of their trip, the students spend time with the children at the center either playing in the gym, doing arts and crafts, helping with homework or escorting some of the children over to the nearby soup kitchen.

Direct involvement with children was a major component for both Stoos and Galent in choosing this particular trip, in addition to the educational aspects.

“I chose this area to volunteer for two reasons. One is I’m actually from the Western New York Area and grew up with a lot of Native friends and never really was educated on the culture, so that was a draw to increase my knowledge. But the other reason I chose this program, was because we were working directly with children,” said Stoos.

This was the first year at the Salamanca program for Stoos, but Galent, the trip veteran, decided to come back to help others achieve a similar experience.

“I decided to do this trip twice, not as a part of my educational program, but this was primarily just a personal decision I made,” she said. “Last year was really eye opening and I learned a lot. I definitely wanted to experience that for a second year and help other student volunteers have that same experience.”

In particular, learning about the cultural nuances of the region resonated with Galent, who has a background in sociology.

“I did not have any idea really about the Native people’s territory and culture from this part of the state. I learned a lot about the Seneca Nation, tribal enrollment and community relations. All those things were very new to me, “ she said. “In our public school, mainstream education, we are taught a narrative that is so different and twisted from reality, especially pertaining to Native people. That, to me, is definitely frustrating. But it’s also neat there is a community here that’s willing to combat the ways our government and society has silenced and marginalized the community.”

Stoos said for some of the other volunteers, they identified more with the socioeconomic background of the children, having participated in similar programs in their youth, and wanted to give back.

At the end of the day, the college students return to their temporary dorms at St. Bonaventure University in Allegany, and have reflection sessions.

“We use that time to discuss anything that may have provoked us emotionally or a connection we might have made that day,” said Stoos.

For Galent, the most emotional part is leaving.

“One of the biggest pitfalls of the trip is that we only have a week, so getting attached to certain kids and knowing you have to leave on Friday is definitely the hardest part,” she said.

 However, Galent says she would encourage anyone to go on an alternative break to embrace a potential learning opportunity and to impact someone’s life.

“We’re only here for a week, but this youth center is working really hard to keep students on the right path and there is so much work that needs to be done, but is also being done by the people here. It’s been great to be a part of it,” she said. “Just be willing to have a symbiotic relationship with the volunteer work that you’re doing. You’re going to learn and much as you give.”

(This story appears in the March 20, 2014 edition of The Salamanca Press.)

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