It all began as an idea in late January. A thought that grew in the months that followed took on a life all its own as a group of students and instructors from Cochise College planned a project to help the community during spring break. This year, students transformed the appearance of a house, helped clean-up Ash Canyon, and worked to change minds about the concept of service learning.
The group embarked on an organized service experience called the Alternative Spring Break Project that led them to understand their relationship to their community and how classroom learning applies beyond the college. The group brainstormed ideas and came to a consensus about what projects could provide the greatest benefit to a community member and the best possible opportunity for student learning. Instructors Chuck Hoyack, Dave Pettes, Lisa Westrick, of the Center for Lifelong Learning, and Steve Roark, advisor for Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society, served as mentors and advisors of the student-driven project.
“That is the way that real learning takes place,” Pettes said. “Students need to take ownership of the project so that they can put their heart into it.”
And the students did just that, implementing guidelines to choose the best proposal. Since the team was interested in helping someone whose home was in need of repair, they targeted elderly homeowners incapable of doing the work on their own and worked with the Department of Economic Security to identify a proposed property.
Students visited Maria Brown’s home at 1146 14th Street in Douglas to assess the extent of need. With the help of Cochise College alum Rudy Sierra, counselor for the college and a licensed contractor, they conducted a needs assessment and drew up a prioritized list of repairs.
Pictures of the interior and exterior of the home were taken and shared with the class prior to a final decision on whether the project would be tackled and exactly what the extent of the work would be. Basically, Sierra said, the home needed significant repairs to the kitchen ceiling and exterior walls, some of which were constructed of exposed sheetrock. The decision was made to take on the home repair as the first of the week’s two projects.
Brown was overwhelmed. But, a project of this magnitude does not only happen with a will. It also requires finances. Students approached local businesses to collaborate. Wal-Mart donated supplies valued at approximately $350, and McDonald’s donated lunch. The Dollar Tree donated $100 worth of cleaning materials. Students and instructors collectively donated $600 plus their time and effort to the cause.
Everyone used existing skills or discovered a new talent. Woletz served as the lead carpenter, Cardenas laid new floor tile, put ceramic tile on the kitchen counters, played carpenter at times, and painted. Ibarra, Hernandez, Morales and Romo did sanding, painting and detail cleaning. McMullan provided and installed insulation, installed new sheetrock and was often seen with a hammer in her hand. Duarte and LaBarr served as carpenter helpers, “lumber jacks” and landscapers. Kasten painted and did much of the heavy hauling. Sierra got everything organized and, with the help of students, put in new exterior walls. Hoyack, who enlisted the help of his two sons, played lumber jack and jack of all trades with Pettes and Westrick.
The day made Hernandez, who participated in Alternative Spring Break last year, feel the same sense of service and pride as before.
“We truly made a big difference in Mrs. Brown’s life. We worked hard and stuck to the project for three days,” she said. “A little hard work goes a really long way!”
Ibarra agreed and still is amazed by what they accomplished. Being involved can be contagious. The group was joined by 12 Douglas High School honor students who helped with yard work, including cutting trees and pruning bushes. Some helped paint cabinet doors, ceilings and walls.
By day three into the week, Brown barely recognized her own home. In the 32 years that she has lived there, “no one has ever helped me the way these young people have. This must be a miracle. I will be forever grateful!”
There was much to celebrate, and still the show had to go on. The team reorganized for the second part of the project. On Thursday, two of the students stayed at Brown’s house to finish up while the other eight students climbed to the top of the ridge in Ash Canyon to clean trash left by migrants. The hike to the top took over an hour.
The clean-up lasted a couple of hours and resulted in the removal of approximately 30 large bags of trash. Hoyack said that although this was a good effort, it would have taken perhaps 50 or more students to completely remove all of the trash found in this area of the Huachucas. The hike to the bottom, while carrying bags filled with trash, was long and slow but ended with a picnic and lots of reflection and storytelling.
“I will definitely do this again next year. If we don’t continue to clean up, it will be so bad that we will lose the beauty of the mountains,” Woletz said as he finally had a chance to sit down.