One Student's Reflection On Collegiate Challenge 2022
by Hannah Scott
My favorite Ted Talk (a relatively short talk intended to inspire and educate about a certain topic) is called “The Danger of a Single Story” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I have watched the talk countless times, and each time I am struck by the way in which she talks about all that you can lose when you enter a new space with a singular story of how it will be. Call this stereotyping or just human nature, but it is a real struggle that we are faced with every day; to allow our minds to wander with preconceived notions and not to ask ourselves to go deeper.
The Appalachia Volunteers program at Boston College, in our space about social justice issues, talks about the importance of stories, and how by listening to others we can be challenged to change. Before we embark on our journey each Spring Break we are told: do not go in with expectations; just be present, authentic, and allow yourself to learn from and enjoy it. In fact, there was another student leader in the program who had worked with Habitat for Humanity in Sumter, SC just before COVID-19 hit. When my co-lead asked if I’d want to ask about her experience here so we could have an
idea of the week ahead, I did not hesitate to refuse. It seemed like the most dangerous thing we could have done before stepping out of the plane and arriving at the site.
I am so grateful that I never got the chance to have a stereotype or image in my head about how my group and I would be received by the Sumter community. Of course, a huge part of the Appalachia Volunteers program is to educate ourselves about the issues the communities face before we enter during our Spring breaks as privileged college students. We knew some statistics and general information about the community and had been talking about the region for the entire year. But, looking back, regardless of any expectations of how the week would’ve gone in my head - if I’d allowed them to come up - they would have been exceeded tenfold.
The arms that received us were open so wide, that it felt like a hug from an old friend. From the minute that we arrived at the First Presbyterian Youth Center, I could feel tears streaming down my cheeks. There were goodie bags, hard hats, sleeping accommodations, snacks, and meals, and everyone had a genuine smile for us. We were praised for “giving up” our breaks and lending a helping hand in their community. Not once during the week did we feel unwelcomed, hungry, or disconnected. On the site, the contractor, Randy, had endless
patience for us. He and the team took the time to teach us skills we would only be able to use for a few days, and it was obvious that they would have completed the same tasks that would take us hours on end in minutes.
Working alongside them was a gift. They were genuine and authentic in everything they did and said. I’ll never forget when I asked one of the men, Reggie, what he wanted for his son in the future and in his career. There was no notion about getting a job and getting out, making money, or anything else that I could recite from my previous experiences in asking parents about their children’s future. Instead, he just looked at me, a man volunteering his time alongside us, and sported the most genuine smile I’d seen in a while. He said, “In all honesty, I just want him to be kind”. It was at that moment that I felt my first tear of the day streaming down my cheek. And yes - I cried at least daily.
Those are the type of people that you’ll meet in Sumter. People with open hearts, and such strong hope and faith, that it's tangible. Always a smile for the volunteers, and a laugh where many others would lose their patience. My participants left the site on the last day and in the car ride told me: “Hannah - we cannot stop talking about how this was the best week of our lives. You know, there are really good days here and there, but we’ve just never had so many in a row. We don’t want to leave.”
I haven’t even begun to talk about everything we were able to experience when we weren’t wearing our hard hats. We shared meals with people who genuinely asked us about who we were and entrusted us with their own stories. They accommodated any dietary restrictions we’d have; from allergies to vegetarianism, and even me, the annoying vegan. They praised us for being so young in our faith and justice at every turn. Whether it was in the churches, homes, on-site, or on the streets for our commitment to a good cause, they stuffed us until we couldn’t fit anymore and listened and shared wholeheartedly.
In all of this, I still don’t quite think that the community understands that it is not them who should be thanking us. We show up for a mere 5 days, do some hammering, and leave. Our only lasting impact is a few signatures on the plywood of one of the many unfinished houses. Of course, our work is important and I’m glad to contribute in any way to Habitat for Humanity’s mission. I’m grateful to be one of the moving pieces in what creates a home for someone who needs it and deserves it.
What I really mean to say is that we should be, we are, and we continue to be thanking Sumter. Thanking them for teaching us what it means to have faith and hope, what it means to be a host, a listener, a friend, and a teacher. The community opened their arms to strange college students without knowing what they would be receiving and welcomed us into their homes with vulnerability and their truths. I am eternally grateful for this opportunity to have been challenged to change and to look past my single story of a place and region I couldn't have hoped to understand before this week. There is endless love and opportunities to find compassion on every corner. To Sumter - I’ll be back.