Small group, big change

They say there’s no such thing as a free lunch, but when the only cost is spending a few hours helping those in need, it’s hard to complain. On this winter’s Alternative Break trip to Washington, D.C., the students involved gained more than just self-fulfillment. Their reward: an almost-free lunch, provided daily by DC Central Kitchen, an organization committed to distributing excess food throughout the district, and employing the very same people they’re working to feed.

“I think my favorite activity was the work we did in DC Central Kitchen,” said Amanda Scheerbaum, advisor to the trip and administrative coordinator in the office of the Dean of Student Affairs. Scheerbaum found it inspiring to see the homeless and formerly homeless in the process of getting their lives back on track. Homelessness, Scheerbaum was quick to point out, can happen as the result of a single traumatic event or poor decision. When an individual lacks a supportive network of friends or family, one unlucky moment can lead to years on the street.

“The problem [of poverty] is so big that pretty much any idea is accepted,” Scheerbaum said. “It doesn’t have to be about creating that huge organization or that huge project.” For Scheerbaum, Alternative Break proved that helping out for even a small amount of time can be important. If everyone dedicated even half an hour each day, she said, the effect would be unbelievable.
Every morning, Scheerbaum and the four students pitched in at DC Central Kitchen. The group helped to sort and prepare food — which was better than most of what Carnegie Mellon has to offer in the way of grub, according to sophomore biology major and trip organizer Anupama Maram. It’s no surprise, considering the food at DC Central Kitchen is not exclusive to the disadvantaged. A professional catering company, DC Central also takes on weddings and parties, events that double as ways to make money and earn free publicity. DC Central accepts many of its ingredients from restaurants and grocery stores in the community.

The group of students also sorted food at the Capital Area Food Bank in addition to visiting the homeless in an infirmary at the Center for Creative Nonviolence. For Maram, the infirmary was the highlight of the trip. Hearing stories and interacting with the homeless added a new dimension to their struggles on the street.

Maram worked with Bagmi Das — a sophomore bio-psych major and the trip’s other planner — to choose a variety of activities to occupy the group’s five-day stay. “It ended up working really well,” Maram said, though initially she and Das were worried they had scheduled an overload of activities.

That wasn’t their only worry. The Alternative Break trip in the winter is always smaller than its counterpart in the spring (last year’s spring trip involved some 18 students), but usually not this small. Originally, Maram and Das had been planning a trip to a Native American reservation, and when the plans never came together, the pair had less than two months to propose an alternative to the alternative.

“We tried to get it [as] out as we could,” Maram said. The change made tabling, info sessions, and other forms of publicity less effective than they would have been before. “I just hope more kids get involved in it,” she added, “because it’s a pretty awesome program.”

Working in small numbers does have its advantages. Maram never had to act like an authority figure. She said, “We were kind of just there as a group.” After volunteering all day, the Breakers would go out to dinner and bond over board games, often going to bed by 10 or 11 p.m.

For five days of service and fun, the trip-goers had to pay only $50. When it comes to Alternative Break, a free lunch seems like it can go a long way.