By Jennifer Tuite
In the shadow of the famous St. Louis Arch on the eastern banks of the Mississippi River lies the impoverished suburb of East St. Louis, Ill. Previously home to 90,000 residents, East St. Louis today has fewer than 30,000 residents, many of whom struggle to make ends meet. First experiencing a loss of industry in the 1950s, East St. Louis has since suffered from rising unemployment, a plummeting tax base, the introduction of drugs and violence, and the accompanying sense of despair.
It was to this suburb that St. Ambrose University students Kait Gushurst, Mary Harmon, Amelia Horras, Kaitlyn Koniuzsy, and AmeriCorps volunteer Jennifer Tuite travelled for spring break in March. This was St. Ambrose’s second year to send a spring break group to East St. Louis, and again the group partnered with Catholic Urban Programs (CUP), a local nonprofit agency operating a number of relief and assistance programs in East St. Louis.
Through CUP, the group stayed in a volunteer hostel and received a schedule of service work to undertake during the five-day stay. That work included cleaning a women’s shelter to prepare it for its opening, assisting teachers at a local Catholic school, mentoring and playing with children at an after-school program, serving lunch at a soup kitchen and cleaning up trash in the neighborhood.
Through the various service projects, the group gained insight into life in East St. Louis and a better understanding of the roots of its poverty. Perhaps the best opportunity to connect to the community came through the after-school program, which operated from a community center in one of the housing projects in town.
Working in the after-school center “allowed us to both engage with students academically, helping with homework, as well as socially, jumping rope and playing games,” says Amelia Horras, the SAU group’s student leader. “They are all making do with what they have and were so eager to accept us.”
At the end of the week, the group enjoyed a sending-off ceremony with CUP and received a poignant blessing from the students at the local Catholic school.
“Overall, the trip was the perfect mixture of moving experiences with the locals in East St. Louis and making new friendships with the fellow Ambrosians on the trip,” says Horras. “I would not choose to spend my spring break in any other way.”
(Jennifer Tuite is a volunteer with AmeriCorps at St. Ambrose University.)