West Linn student uses winter break to lend a hand

by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP - Tara Benavente felt like she lived in a bubble, and wanted to change that.

So the 21-year-old University of Portland student signed up for a crash course in “urban poverty,” and ended up sleeping on a cold, bare tile floor in a downtown shelter three times in the course of one frigid weekend in January.

It’s not the cold that she remembers, but the interactions she had with the men and women around her as she helped prepare “hospitality kits” for them, consisting of toothpaste, socks, underwear and other necessities.

Before one man walked away with his kit, Benavente recalled, “He stopped and put his hand on me and said, ‘I’m going to pray for you;’ that God would bless me and keep me safe. Then he walked off. It brought me to tears.”

The junior social work major, originally from Guam, is one of 17 University of Portland students who took part in the urban poverty immersion experience this month, on their last weekend before wrapping up winter break.

University students from across the region participated, including Megan Fitzgerald, a sophomore from Hillsboro; Marissa Shumaker, a junior from Sherwood; and Melissa Aguilar, a freshman from West Linn.

The experience doesn’t come with credit and is not required by the university. Students were motivated by something deeper.

“Just being in Portland and going to a really good school, you come downtown and the gap between you and those who are experiencing poverty is becoming evident and emphasized,” Benavente said. “That gap just makes me uncomfortable. I just decided to dive in.”

After sleeping on the floor at St. Andre’s Catholic Church on Thursday, Jan. 11, the students helped serve breakfast in the morning: biscuits and gravy, pastries and chocolate milk, stick-to-the-ribs stuff.

They also visited the Community Transition School in Northeast Portland (for children experiencing homelessness), handed out food at the Oregon Food Bank, and toured Dignity Village, the encampment at Sunderland Yard in North Portland.

‘Still some hope out there’

The immersion experience is a natural one for University of Portland students, said Pat Ell, assistant director of the University’s Moreau Center for Service and Leadership, which has offered dozens of similar programs since 1987.

While service isn’t required by the university, it is one of three “mission points,” and is integrated into the school.

“Students accept it — that’s part of what you should do,” he said.

The immersion experiences are planned during school breaks and organized by theme, one per spring, summer, fall and winter. Any student, regardless of grade or major, may sign up.

Among the offerings: a fall trip to rural immersion experience in Washington’s state Yakima Valley to study migrant worker issues; a spring trip to the U.S.-Mexico border to study immigration and border issues; and a summer trip through the South, retracing the civil rights movement. (Students raise funds or pay a portion of the cost for each trip; the university subsidizes the rest.)

The urban poverty immersion weekend stirs deep connections for many students, said Ell, in his fourth year of leading the program after going through it himself as an undergraduate. He received his theology degree from University of Portland in 1989.

“A lot of people overcome their fear of people different from them and understand more of the factors that affect people who experience homelessness: bad luck, health problems, mental illness, addiction, difficulty of a living wage and affordable housing, health care and childcare,” he said.

“We hope students will integrate their academic with their personal beliefs — look at homelessness as a society problem, not just an academic problem.”

Ell knows of many students who have returned to volunteer at one of the sites they’ve visited. This weekend’s group also ran into a former student who took the urban poverty experience a couple of years ago and works at the shelter they visited.

Tynishia Walker, 21, a senior who plans to pursue her master’s degree in social work after she graduates in May, thinks it would be great if every university had a program similar to this. She said 20-somethings have much more to offer than people might think.

“Every place we’ve gone, there are Jesuit or Americorps volunteers, putting themselves out to these agencies, hoping to make a change,” she said. “There definitely is still some hope out there. I’m hoping to make a change.”

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