Wielding force in the community. Fostering positive change. Engaging others. Living the mission of helping your neighbors near and far. Reflecting on life and one’s place in the community.
These are just some of the lessons 13 students from Sacred Heart University learned in early January as they concluded their winter break by participating in CURTIS (Community Understanding and Reflection Through Inner-city Service) Week. In this program, students spend five days in Bridgeport, immersing themselves in the community and its cultures, and doing hands-on work for various nonprofit organizations and local charities that help scores of people in the Park City who face economic and sociological challenges.
CURTIS Week, sponsored by Enterprise Rent-a-Car and now in its 16th year at Sacred Heart, has become a watershed moment in each participant’s college tenure. Not only do students get a glimpse of how the working poor live in Bridgeport and become partners with the city to improve conditions, but they also get a taste of new cultures, religions and ways of living.
Traditionally, CURTIS Week coincides with the Martin Luther King holiday as a way to honor the slain civil rights leader and to carry his dream and hopes for the United States of America forward.
“During CURTIS Week, we capture his spirit and mission of community service, while respecting all religions, cultures and people” said Maura Cook, assistant director of community service.
CURTIS Week’s theme is the discussion of stereotyping and prejudice, and time at the end of each day is carved out to reflect on those important issues.
“We have a reciprocal relationship with Bridgeport — we give to them, but they give us more,” Cook said. “The people of Bridgeport help us become better students; they help us to grow, and they help us to become better people.”
The students hear from people who have endured and overcome obstacles. For example, one evening they met with a man who had been incarcerated and got a sobering look at his life as an ex-offender and how he tries to live in a society where he is often looked down upon for his past.
Days are packed with tasks, from working on homes for Habitat for Humanity to engaging with young children who attend a daycare run by the Daughters of Charity or serving meals at local soup kitchens. While the days can be long, the rewards are lasting, and the lessons are meaningful.
One day, following a morning of community outreach, the students visited the Al Aziz Madjid, an African-American Mosque, and met with the Imam to learn more about the Muslim faith. The students then went on to visit Congregation B’Nai Israel, also in Bridgeport, where they attended an evening service with congregants and enjoyed conversation with the rabbi.
First-year student Alyssa Fetherson from Highland Mills, N.Y., said the week of community service opened her eyes to new people and experiences and began what she hopes will be a lifetime calling to helping others.
“I loved the time working one-on-one with people, especially the children who are so full of life and energy,” she said. “Volunteering is such a strong part of Sacred Heart, and I am so glad I took part in this week.”
Emmanuella Joseph, a senior from Port-au-Prince, Haiti, said the experience shed light on how others live and the challenges immigrants and the poor face. It also provoked meaningful, introspective questions for herself about one’s mission in life.
“It showed me why we live and why we’re here, and I think one answer is to help others, to be a guide for them,” she said. “Many times this week, we were asked important questions during times of reflection, such as what are our goals in life, and I think I am still trying to answer that. But I do know that we are here to give people the extra push that they need and to put others before ourselves.”
Joseph, a psychology major, said she connected immediately with other Haitians she met at various places throughout the week.
“They didn’t have to say anything, but I knew we shared something that was powerful,” she said.
Immanuel Sanchez, a sophomore from Staten Island, N.Y., was participating in CURTIS Week for the second time. “The first year was so inspiring, and I saw it as a time for reflection and giving,” said the sports management and marketing double major.
Sanchez, whose parents are from the Dominican Republican, sees CURTIS Week and the time spent volunteering throughout the rest of the year as a way to honor his parents who, he said, were powerful figures in his life and sacrificed a great deal to give him an education.
“They didn’t speak English when they came to this country,” he said. “They worked a few part-time jobs and got educated because they wanted me to have a better opportunity. They’re great role models, and I use what they taught me here in Bridgeport.”