KSU’s Cleveland immersion trip takes students for an urban experience

Gina Maldonado

Students learn how poverty-stricken people live while offering them help

A group of six students, two AmeriCorps VISTA staffers and one administrator left Kent’s cozy surroundings Halloween night to search for the urban experience.

“Cleveland’s in my backyard and I never really learned much about it,” AmeriCorps VISTA staffer Megan Odell-Scott said.

Driving down dark, cramped streets made of cracked and dented pavement, the group traveled to Cleveland to see how people in poverty live while giving them a hand.

Catholic Worker volunteers walked participants through the Near West Side Saturday. Mike Fila, who jokingly referred to himself as a ‘community agitator,’ and his adopted dog, Tara, showed participants the neighborhood’s two sides: poverty and community.

Hungry group participants stepped into a foul-smelling room with dirty, wet floors to get breakfast. Three homeless men in ragged clothes sat in the room. One named Carlos picked at three bloody sores on his right leg.

“You don’t ever want to treat people inhuman, or they will start acting that way,” Fila said.

The trip’s second half involved the community aspect. Fila walked the group through quiet, clean tree-lined streets. Painted caricature murals covered the sides of several brick buildings. Several streets down, an urban farm named the Gather Round Farm was planted over concrete.

“The number one crop isn’t tomatoes,” Fila said. “It’s community.”

The community farm housed 25 chickens.

“All the chickens have names,” he said. “I don’t think you can kill chickens that have names.”

Crystal Nicholson, sophomore nursing major, asked Fila if he noticed more people at food pantries since the economy’s decline.

“The economy’s always bad,” Fila said.

The group headed back to the Catholic Worker’s house for lunch. Because the average meal of people who live in poverty’s costs $2, the students ate at that price, said Ann Gosky, senior special assistant of enrollment management and student affairs.

Lunch was a small bowl of macaroni and cheese and peas. The group sipped on tea in white Styrofoam cups while listening to one resident’s stories.

Porfirio Velasquez Madiera, Catholic Worker house resident, spoke about his history. In broken English, the tattooed elderly man from Puerto Rico with a long, fluffy white beard and dirty fingernails told the group how his father physically abused his mother and brothers. The group sat in silence as they watched Madiera cry about his parents’ death.

Madiera stopped crying and began telling stories about his journey in America.

“I’ve been here a long time – too long,” he said.

Later in the day, several neighbors spoke with the group about their connections to the Near West Side.

“I wouldn’t trade this section for nothing,” said Mary Sanchez, 54-year Near West Side resident. “Here we see something, we call one another.”

The group spoke with several other families, including Eleanor Szekely.

She said she wanted her five children to live in a racially diverse neighborhood. In 1986, Szekely moved her family into the Near West Side. Szekely loves the Near West Side.

“They’ll have to take me in my coffin,” she said.

Group participants learned about the conflict longtime Near West Side residents have with gentrification. Cleveland renamed the Near West Side to Ohio City and gives tax abatements to new residents of homes costing between $100,000 and $400,000.

Students and staff walked through Ohio City neighborhoods sprinkled with $400,000 homes. These homes sat amid homeless shelters.

“You walk two blocks, and it’s a nice neighborhood; you walk two more blocks, and it’s a bad neighborhood,” said Vanessa Opoku, junior school health education major.

The tour ended at Cleveland’s West Side Market. The hodgepodge of eateries introduced students to Cleveland’s multiculturalism. Participants learned they would be eating dinner at St. Herman’s food pantry, which is open every day of the year.

A plate filled with pasta and meat, salad, and bread was served for dinner. Candy bars, pastries and fruit were optional menu items.

The final group session occurred after dinner. Some students discussed their guilt from eating food that was donated for homeless people.

“In this neighborhood, there’s no shortage of food,” Lehrer said. “It’s everywhere.”

According to the Institute for Poverty 2008 statistics, more than 1.35 million children from 600,000 American families are homeless. The institute also states available shelter and housing for homeless families is decreasing.

Contact social services reporter Gina Maldonado at [email protected].