Not home for the holidays

How escaping celebration can lead to growth

It was last Tuesday evening, the day before Thanksgiving break. The typical “have a nice break” and “enjoy the food” exchanges occurred with friends and peers alike.

I had to stop our conventional conversations to inform them I was not going home for Thanksgiving.

As part of the Office of Student Engagement’s Alternative Break program, I chose to co-lead a community service trip to Cleveland, Ohio. The trip is just one of many that the program offers to students who wish to volunteer their time for the improvement of communities in Buffalo and beyond.

I felt compelled to join the trip as I had been part of it the previous year. The last Alternative Break I had been on really developed my passion for service.

Last year, I spent my Thanksgiving serving meals to the homeless in Cleveland, delivering meals to those who could otherwise not obtain them and engaging with residents of an elder care facility.

Members of these communities are often forgotten about, not listened to or designated with stigmas.

By doing service in these communities, I’ve come to question myself and those around who may resort to mocking these individuals. The people and places I visited have become ingrained in my mind, so I wouldn’t dare make light of their deepest concerns.

Not only that but trips like these raise awareness to issues that some college students may not fully understand. The privilege that we collectively have to engage with these communities is heavy, one that is not realized until you actually find yourself on a trip like this.

I felt that the lessons I learned on last year’s trip were something that had to be reinforced in me.

This year, our team of UB community members visited some of the same sites that I had gone to last year. The sites included a homeless shelter for men that turns down no one and a center that looks to rehabilitate residents suffering from mental illness.

At the Magnolia Clubhouse, a psychosocial center I visited on each of my trips, members suffer from mental illnesses. For a dollar a day, members can be part of the clubhouse which offers transitional employment opportunities and primary care services.

The clubhouse is a great step toward the well-being and health of its members. In an America that treats those suffering from mental illness with disdain, the Clubhouse welcomes its members by harvesting a true sense of community.

At the Men’s Shelter at 2100 Lakeside, I served dinner to more than 200 men. One of my team members stated that there is no look to ‘homelessness;’ homelessness can affect anyone. I couldn’t have agreed more.

Old or young, white or black – it simply doesn’t matter. Homelessness is not a selective process.

Through the service trip, I have learned that some of the issues that impact Cleveland have also been harmful to the Buffalo community. The cities may be in different states but they face very similar social situations.

According to Brie Zeltner of, Cleveland has the second highest rate of children in poverty in the country. Zeltner writes that “kids living in poverty are more likely to be truant, to fail standardized reading and math tests, and to eventually drop out of school.”

The issue of childhood poverty is not foreign to this area, either.

According to Jay Rey of the Buffalo News, 54% of Buffalo children between birth and five years of age are in poverty. Rey writes that “nearly 32,000 Buffalo children are poor, almost enough to sell out the downtown KeyBank Center - twice”.

It must be noted, though, that these problems are bigger than numbers.

These are problems that affect the lives of so many in our communities and have the ability to stunt the progress of our youth. Impoverished children, homeless individuals or those suffering from mental illnesses are left at a severe disadvantage.

Problems like the ones Cleveland or Buffalo face are no easy fix; they require efforts from students like myself to help bring awareness to them.

Awareness leads to action which, conclusively, brings about a change.

Ultimately, the service team was not meant to take the role of a savior on the trip. We can only work as catalysts to bring about a better community.

If curriculum policies were up to me, I would require service trips to be included in the general education catalog. Taking classes in Amherst distances people from what’s going on in places like Buffalo’s East Side.

This break could have been used to calm down after a hectic semester, but spending it doing service is something I will never regret.

Benjamin Blanchet is a staff writer and can be reached at