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Spring break alternative

Students take on service, learning during vacation

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ECU students Sylveonna Holmes, 20, and Janera Reid, 21, review their shopping list at Save A Lot grocery store while making sure they don't go over budget for their spring break study Saturday afternoon, March 4, 2017.


Beth Velliquette
The Daily Reflector

Monday, March 6, 2017

While some of their fellow students are off playing on southern beaches, two East Carolina University students are experiencing what it’s like to be poor and homeless and, at the same time, they’ll be serving and supporting homeless people in Greenville.

Janera Reid, 21, and Sylveonna Holmes, 20, joined Lizzie Shepard, an Americorps VISTA volunteer, at the Community Crossroads Center emergency shelter Saturday morning. They moved into a vacant apartment in the abandoned old two-story brick building next door and they’ll be staying there until Wednesday.

They will cook food they bought on a tight budget and will sleep there each night, and during the day, they’ll be serving meals at the shelter, working with youth at the Third Street Education Center, working at community gardens in west Greenville and facilitating a campus kitchen at Operation Sunshine.

They’re part of ECU’s Center for Leadership and Civic Engagement Alternative Spring Break program, which sent 76 Pirates on service projects in places like Baltimore, Md., Pilot Mountain and Boone, Columbia, S.C., Atlanta, Washington, D.C., and more. Shepard said one group went to Atlantic Beach to clean and paint cabins at Camp Albemarle, while others will work with the N.C. Coastal Federation doing environmental work.

Part of the experience for Reid and Holmes is to feel what it’s like to be poor and homeless. The apartment in the abandoned building is shabby with old, dirty furniture, but it had a small kitchen that worked and a bathroom.

“I was very kind of skeptical at first because it’s an abandoned building, but after cleaning up we thought it was OK,” Reid said.

The room’s bright side was that it had huge windows that looked out over Dream Park, and they imagined what it would be like when the sun rose each morning.

Their next task was to plan a shopping trip to Save-A-Lot. A fourth woman was going to join them later, so their budget was $7 per person per day for four days, but they already spent some money at Jimmy John’s for a lunch for themselves and three speakers they met with earlier, so they had $72 left.

Earlier they met with Jermaine McNair, a community activist, Nathan White, who works at the Third Street Education Center, and Bob Williams, executive director for Community Crossroads Center. They talked about their $7 a day budget. They wouldn’t be getting any McDonald’s or Chick-fil-A, they said. A meal and drink at a fast food restaurant would take nearly their whole daily budget, they said.

Even buying a bag of grapes or other fresh fruit can cut sharply into the $7 a day budget, Shepard said. It makes buying the healthy options difficult.

Instead they focused on some simple meals, eggs or cereal for breakfast, turkey lunch meat on white bread for lunch, beans and rice, chicken and frozen broccoli, stir fry, or pasta with white sauce for their dinners.

With a cold wind blowing, they walked the couple of blocks to Save-A-Lot with their list.

As they worked their way through the store following their list, Reid added up the prices on her cell phone. It was going to be close, and as the cashier rang up the last item, no one could quite believe it.

They had spent $71.91.

“With nine cents to spare,” Holmes said.

Even the cashier gave them a high five.

They left in high spirits as they carried their groceries back to their apartment.

The question was why would they decide to stay in Greenville over spring break? Why not party at the beach or at least pick a place to volunteer that was somewhere new?

“I wanted to do this one in particular because I relate to these issues of homelessness and poverty, and I know it’s important to have a support system and help,” Holmes said. “Now I’m in that position to help.”

Holmes already knows about poverty. She was homeless during her senior year in high school.

“I grew up in poverty,” she said. “I had to work to help my mom pay bills.”

She chose to stay in Greenville because there is poverty in neighborhoods all around the ECU campus, she said.

“I think a lot of people don’t go there because they just don’t know what happens in them,” she said. “I know what it’s like to be there so it feels like home.”

Reid said she decided to stay in Greenville and work with homeless and poor people because a friend did it last year, and the friend told her it was an eye-opening experience.

“I’m in a leadership organization and thought it would be a good opportunity to meet groups and form partnerships later on,” she said.

Contact Beth Velliquette at bvelliquette@reflector.com and 329-9566.