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Students explore poverty in urban areas over winter break

| Wednesday, January 15, 2020

While many students celebrated the holidays and spent time relaxing over winter break, some also spent a few days examining the causes and challenges of poverty in cities across America.

Urban Plunge, the Center for Social Concern’s one-credit experiential learning seminar, allowed 146 students at 25 different sites to learn about organizations fighting poverty in cities close to their own hometowns. These immersions ranged from two to four days and many are affiliated with Notre Dame alumni clubs.

Photo courtesy

Members of an Urban Plunge team in Pittsburgh pose after packing boxes of food for distribution. Urban Plunge teams spent part of their winter breaks immersed in struggling urban communities across the country.

Adam Gustine, assistant director of seminars at the CSC, said he expects Urban Plunge to help students understand what it takes to “build a community where everyone flourishes, particularly those who are marginalized.”

The plunges are framed through the lens of Catholic social teaching, with an emphasis on a preferential option for the poor and the vulnerable.

“We want to explore the overlap between the pursuit of the common good and the human dignity for each person, and how those two things play together,” Gustine said.

During the four classes prior to the immersion, Gustine said the students learn about the nature of the cities and neighborhoods they will be visiting in order to try to understand the different approaches people take to combat the issues facing the sites.

“We look at symptomatic issues versus root causes of these social issues,” Gustine said. “We do that so when you go on the immersion we have a frame of reference to what we’re looking at.”

In just a few days, sophomore Amelia Love, who helped lead an Urban Plunge site in The Ville in St. Louis this year, said the goal was not to solve any problems but to simply trying to understand them.

“It’s a great way to build solidarity in St. Louis with community members I would not have otherwise met,” Love said.

After participating in an immersion both this year and last year, Love said she found it heartbreaking how overworked and understaffed the employees at the homeless center are, but she knows their work is greatly appreciated.

“Change is possible, but it’s hard. But that shouldn’t be an excuse for not helping people,” Love said.

Sophomore Caroline Myers participated in Urban Plunge for the first time this winter break, and stayed with a Notre Dame alumni couple in neighborhood in Denver called Sun Valley, which Myers said is the poorest zip code in all of Colorado.

She said they worked with a few different nonprofits during the immersion to learn more about the homeless population in Sun Valley. One of the organizations operated with a simple mission of going into the streets in the neighborhood and having discussions with the homeless people without an agenda.

Myers, who is from Denver, said she was particularly struck by a man she met named Kevin, who during their prayer broke down crying.

“He talked about his struggle with alcohol … he wasn’t asking for money or a new life, but he was just wishing for God to decide what was going to happen to him,” Myers said.

Although Myers lives fairly close to Sun Valley and had visited many restaurants in the area, she said she had no idea so many of the houses were for the homeless.

“Being from a part of Denver where I can easily turn a blind eye to their struggles, it made me upset with myself because I’ve had the privilege of not having to realize that there was homeless housing down the street from my favorite doughnut shop,” Myers said.

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About Serena Zacharias

Serena is a junior majoring in Neuroscience and Behavior and minoring in Journalism, Ethics and Democracy. She hails from the great cheese state of Wisconsin and currently serves as a New Writer Editor for the Observer.

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