This past week, Bryant University, along with Bridgewater State University, Connecticut College, and the University of New Hampshire, participated in the second annual ServeUp alternative spring break trip to Ybor City in Tampa, Florida. This trip originally began as a hurricane relief trip to New Orleans after Katrina struck in 2005, but was expanded to include Tampa last year. Myself and eleven other Bryant students, along with our staff advisor, boarded the bus for a 26 hour trip from Rhode Island to Tampa, and that was just the beginning of what would be an exciting and life-changing trip.
Pre-trip Team Photo
The organization that we worked for during the week was called the Tampa Underground. The Underground is a community of micro-churches that serve the Tampa area. Their main building, which we lived in for the week, is called the Hub and is located in Ybor Square. This particular area of Tampa is littered with all sorts of problems: prostitution, drug use, crime, homelessness, poverty, etc. The Underground specifically located itself right in the middle of all of this corruption and poverty in order to help those in the community who need it. The Director of the Tampa Underground is a recovering drug addict himself, and has a passion for helping those in need. The Tampa Underground has grown to include over 100 ministries, one of which is the Timothy Initiative. This initiative is focused on helping out recovering drug addicts and giving them a supportive community and home for them to live in. This was one of the main ministries that we worked with during the week.
During the Work Week
There were two main sites that we worked on throughout the week. I spent the first three days outside helping to paint houses, one of which was a woman’s house and the other was a Timothy Initiative house. The weather was beautiful all week, aside from a 10 minute downpour on Wednesday. On our lunch breaks, we had the opportunity to hear the testimonies of several of the Timothy Initiative members, and it was really powerful stuff. These were guys who survived miraculous circumstances after hitting rock bottom, and ended up coming to faith. An important thing that we learned throughout the week is to not think of ourselves as better than these people. It is important to be understanding of what a serious issue drug addiction is. Often times, these were just normal people who were put in unfortunate circumstances and made a bad choice that kept escalating. It was inspiring to hear that many of them claimed they motivated to get clean so they could return to their family, girlfriend, and child.
The second worksite, where I spent Thursday and Friday, was a building that the Tampa Underground was planning to move into dubbed the “New Hub”. Our job here was to clean and move out all of the equipment and other tools to try to get the building in good condition for move-in day. It was pretty cool to see the new building because you could tell it was going to be a huge upgrade for the organization, and therefore gives them more potential to reach out to the community.
Evening Games and Discussions
Of course, the week wasn’t only working all day. During the evenings, there were several games and competitions that everyone participated in as teams. The winner of the competition for one night would get to eat dinner first the next night, so there was definitely some incentive.
There were also the discussions that we had at night. After being presented with some questions to think about concerning what happened during the day, we broke off into small groups and had some great conversations. Whether it was just getting to know each other better, sharing our spiritual backgrounds and beliefs, or telling personal stories that would be really hard to share with just any ordinary person, I think both Bryant small groups really had a great time and shared some deep discussions. It was personal highlight for me, because it had been a very long time since I had ever experienced that much openness and honesty from other people.
St. Petersburg and Sarasota
We did have the opportunity to do some fun things outside of Tampa this week. On Sunday, our first full day in Florida, we went to St. Petersburg to enjoy a beautiful day at St. Petersburg beach. I had a great time playing some beach volleyball and it was nice just to relax in the sun. The beaches in Florida are definitely different than the ones in New England.
On Tuesday night, we had the privilege of going to out to St. Armand’s Circle in Sarasota for the evening. We got to enjoy a nice dinner together, and walk around and explore the area, which included ice cream and fudge shops, a hammock store, sunset on the beach, and many other tourist shops. It was another beautiful night and a great time overall.
New Orleans vs. Tampa
One interesting part of this trip for me was mentally comparing to my experience in New Orleans on the same trip three years ago. In 2011, New Orleans was still reeling from Hurricane Katrina, and the focus of the trip was to provide hurricane relief to those in need and explore the intersection between social justice and spirituality. I thought both New Orleans and Tampa were cool cities themselves in terms of their setup and location. What made this Tampa trip stand out to me was that we were trying to help with a fundamental structural problem that has existed for decades, not just one event that happened in 2005. For me, it felt like the city of Tampa was in worse shape, and in need of more help. This is a place where prostitution, drugs, and crime run wild. This city is broken, but I still feel like God has a purpose for Tampa. We already got to hear the amazing testimonies to faith that emerged out of these terrible situations. I think I also learned a lot more and had a better time being a more experienced and mature senior on this trip versus being a lowly freshman in New Orleans three years ago.
Overall, this trip definitely exceeded my expectations. This statement is not to be taken lightly, as someone who had done the trip before and somewhat knew what to expect. Two major things I took away from this trip were the importance of relationships, both with God and with others, and the importance of the openness and honesty that took place during the group discussions throughout the week. I have become more and more convinced throughout the years that true happiness can only be achieved directly by establishing relationships with others. We were meant to connect with other people, to share both the good times and the bad, and to support each other. This was no more evident than the men from the Timothy Initiative consistently emphasizing how happy they were to live with the other guys in their community who could care for them and support them. They didn’t have to face their addictions or problems alone, and that was a big burden off of their shoulders. Along with relationships comes the importance of honesty. This was so clear all week as we shared very deep things with each other in our small groups and were just real with each other. This quality is something you don’t see very often, especially at Bryant. Even one of the recovering addicts said that he knew he had to admit his relapse while he was with the Timothy Initiative or he wouldn’t get better.
This trip impacted everyone in different ways, but I am thankful for the group of Bryant students I was able to spend it with: Ashley, Dan, Luke, Catherine, Katie, Kat, Alex, Kanal, Michelle, Mark, Taylor, and Chris. It was truly a highlight of my life and I hope to use this momentum going forward.
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