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TrekNorth students serve homeless, others in Chicago

Walls began crumbling inside Bemidji teenager Alex Larsen as he spoke with a homeless man last month at a homeless shelter in Chicago.

During that visit, the word "homeless" took on a new meaning for the junior from TrekNorth Senior High School.

"He said, 'It can happen to anyone,'" Larsen said. "All you need is a house fire or all you need is a bad loan."

Preconceptions were shattered and lives touched when 15 TrekNorth juniors and seniors visited Chicago on a Jan. 6-13 service learning trip.

In five days, the students visited about a dozen sites as volunteers with the Brother David Darst Center, which provides learning and immersion opportunities that explore social justice issues.

They tutored students at schools, served meals at a Salvation Army soup kitchen, packaged food at the Greater Chicago Food Depository, worked in a clothing bank and visited homeless men, women and families in shelters.

TrekNorth teacher Deb Carlson-Doom, who led the trip with two other staff members, said the trip was a good chance for students to learn more about issues surrounding poverty and homelessness.

Visiting homeless shelters was challenging because, unlike serving meals at a soup kitchen or tutoring students at a school, the group's only job was to talk with the people there, Carlson-Doom said.

Although a challenge, Larsen said talking with people who are homeless was easier than he anticipated.

Senior Patrick Scanlan said talking with strangers was a challenge. But, he said, his favorite part of the trip was a stop at Su Casa, a homeless shelter for families from Central America and South America.

"They brought in whole families and helped whole families," he said.

Scanlan said his preconceptions of the homeless as unintelligent, drug-addicted and lazy were obliterated as a result of the trip.

Senior Jessica Joyce said the people she encountered on the trip had a good outlook on life despite their circumstances.

"And they're really thankful for all the little things they got," said Joyce, recalling the personal hygiene items the women at a day shelter won during games of bingo.

Junior Kellie Basswood said she particularly enjoyed visiting a men's homeless shelter.

"I liked talking to those guys," she said, noting that they had interesting stories. "I think they were happy that we came and talked to them."

TrekNorth teacher Erica Harmsen, who was one of the leaders on the trip, said she believes most of the men and women at the shelters enjoyed talking with the students because it gave them hope.

"And then our students learned that they are real people," she said.

One night, the TrekNorth staff members took the students to a wealthy Chicago neighborhood that has the highest population of homelessness in the Midwest, Carlson-Doom said. The students' task was to find places where they would eat, sleep and do other necessary things if they were homeless.

On the outing, they encountered a homeless man who broke down crying. He told them he had just been kicked out of a homeless shelter.

"So right when we meet him, it was like his breaking point," Harmsen said.

"I just couldn't imagine not knowing where I was going to stay the night," Basswood said.

Making a difference

Harmsen said one of the goals of TrekNorth's service learning trips is to show students that serving others impacts their own lives.

And for Larsen, the experience sparked in interest in working with the homeless.

"We were leaving Su Casa and Alex said, 'I could do this for the rest of my life,'" said Carlson-Doom, adding that Larsen is exploring the possibilities of such a job for the summer.

Service learning trips align with TrekNorth's aim to prepare young people to make a positive difference in their local and global communities.

The school offers beginner, intermediate and advanced service learning trips.

Beginner trips, which include trips to the Bemidji Senior Center, the Bemidji Community Food Shelf, the Headwaters Science Center and Itasca State Park, are open to students in grades 7-12.

Intermediate trips take students in grades 9-12 to Minneapolis and St. Paul where they serve breakfast at the Salvation Army, package meals for starving children around the world and work at a family shelter.

The Chicago trip, which is the school's advanced service learning trip, is open to juniors and seniors.

Students can put two service learning credits toward the six Outdoor Adventure Program credits that the school requires for graduation.

This school year, 80 percent of the senior high students and 50 percent of the junior high students at TrekNorth have participated in a service learning trip, Carlson-Doom said.