Howard University students spend spring break volunteering in Newark

By Barry Carter | The Star-Ledger
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on March 22, 2015

More than 50 students on spring break from Howard University volunteer in Newark to support Mayor Baraka's Model Neighborhood Initiative. The students work on one of Newark's urban farms. The anti-litter program is part of Howard University's nationally-acclaimed "Alternative Spring Break," launched in 1994 to provide Howard University students with a meaningful, constructive "alternative" to the indulgence-centered spring break activities that have dominated the commercial media in recent years. The efforts in Newark will support Mayor Baraka's Model Neighborhood Initiative, which has targeted that portion of the South Ward for intense public safety, redevelopment, and community engagement efforts. Mayor Baraka, like his father, the late poet Amiri Baraka, is a Howard University alumnus.


South Beach or Newark?

Cancun or Newark?

Panama City Beach, Fla., or Newark?

Well, it turned out to be Newark, and no, this is not a tourist pitch.

Fifty students from Howard University, a historically black institution in Washington, D.C., chose to spend their spring break here.

And no, it wasn't to use the city as a pit stop while hanging out in New York. They came to work this past week.

There was no time to play on the community service agenda they set up as part of their Alternative Spring Break, a project many college students across the country opt to participate in rather than to spend spring break partying.

The Howard students had been to other cities, states and countries, including Atlanta, St. Louis, Louisiana and Haiti.

But Newark was never on their list, until Davynte Pannell and Ayanna Wilcox convinced directors of the ASB program at Howard that their hometown should be a place where they could serve.

"I feel better giving back at home than giving back anywhere else,'' says Pannell, 21.

He had been to Atlanta for ASB and thought, why not home, where help is needed to address low high school retention rates and to let kids know they can achieve.

"I don't really feel like this is an alternative spring break,'' he says. " I feel like I'm supposed to do it."

He reached out to Mayor Ras Baraka, who put him touch with Keesha Eure, chairwoman of the Newark Anti-Violence Coalition, to make it happen. With the help of Metropolitan Baptist Church and the Howard University Alumni Club of New Jersey, the students were able to focus on a city that grew on them each day they spent in it.

"Newark has the potential and they have the drive," says Amanda Paige, 19, of Milwaukee, Wis. "I found they have hope in the people. There's something there.''

On cold mornings, they got nice and dirty planting vegetables' and fruit trees at the Hawthorne Avenue farm operated by the Greater Newark Conservancy.

The students split up in the afternoon, with half the group helping to renovate an apartment building that is a project of Youth Build, a community development agency in Newark. The agency works with 16- to 24-year-olds who lack skills and education, and who have been part of the criminal justice system.

While those Howard students painted and cleaned up debris, the other half of their contingent spoke with students at Malcolm X Shabazz High School about financial literacy, media literacy and sociopolitical consciousness.

"We were trying to help them understand who they are, and how they fit into society and the economy,'' says Kellie Hunnicut, 20, of Gastonia, N.C."Newark is changing so we want them to understand what the market is and how they can enter a changing market.''

Every day went this way, except when they met students from Ohio State University, who were working at the Boys and Girls Clubs on their Alternative Spring Break. At the club, Howard helped kids with homework and talked to them about life. On another night, they fed those in need of a meal at the Willing Heart Community Care Center, the outreach arm of Metropolitan Baptist Church.

The students were so immersed that evening, some of them chose to continue serving the hungry rather than attending the mayor's State of The City address.

"They were no joke," said Rev. John Williford, executive director of the center. "These kids came to work. You could see the gleam in their eyes."

The days ended with students reporting what they had done, giving encouragement to each other and thanking Pannell for bringing them to his city.

Some of them knew about Newark, it's past, its problems with education and crime, issues that affect cities where they live.

And there were some who knew very little, if anything, about the city. But regardless of where they came from - places as far as Nigeria and Korea or as close as Missouri and Indiana - Howard students embraced Newark and Newark hugged them right back.

Amoge Ezike, of Nigeria, remembers when they first got off the bus and were greeted at City Hall by Howard alumni, city officials and the anti-violence coalition.

"The welcome was very touching," the 17-year-old freshman said. "I almost cried. They wanted us here and it made me want to work more."

Yesterday morning, the students headed back to the nation's capital, knowing they made the right decision: Newark, first.

Spring break never had a chance.

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