WXXI AM News

College Help For Impoverished

Nov 21, 2015

Those tagged as poor during the Hunger Banquet at St. John Fisher College must sit on the floor, and are fed only rice.
Credit Olivia Lopez / St. John Fisher College

College students face worries over juggling homework, clubs, jobs, and their social lives. However, physically surviving isn’t a concern for most of them.

But it is for many other people in the Rochester area. According to ACT Rochester’s community indicators for the Greater Rochester Area, Monroe County has the greatest rate of homelessness among area counties. In 2014, the homeless rate for Monroe was at 11.2 homeless people per 10,000 residents.

ACT Rochester, an effort of the Rochester Area Community Foundation, also used U.S. Census data for an analysis that provided insight on the poverty rate in Rochester in comparison with cities of its size. The Rochester childhood poverty rate, now at 50 percent, ranks first in comparison to childhood poverty rates of same sized cities across the nation.

Events on college campuses are highlighting Rochester’s poverty problem, event allowing students to experience the issue first-hand.

Juana Vega, assistant director at the Office of Multicultural Affairs and Diversity Programs at St. John Fisher College, said the most important thing is showing the students that poverty, homelessness, and food insecurity-could happen to anybody.

“This is happening to college students, this is happening to our faculty, to our staff, right now,” Vega said. You’re never safe from it. You can do everything right in your life and it can just happen.”

Tickets handed out at the door designate whether students attending the Hunger Banquet at St. John Fisher College are fed like the poor, middle class, or the wealthy.
Credit Olivia Lopez / St. John Fisher College

  Vega and her team in the diversity office work to educate Fisher students about this issue through many ways. One is the Hunger Banquet, which is designed to help raise students’ awareness of how many people live without adequate food supplies. It takes place each year during Four Freedoms Week, an annual program at Fisher that highlights human rights. A canned food drive during the week also solicits donations from the faculty, staff and students of Fisher.

Box Town is another Fisher event held around the same time that works to raise awareness about homelessness in Rochester.

“We just get a bunch of boxes and people sleep out in the quad for the night,the whole point of it is to raise awareness for the homeless so you see what they live like for a night,” said Lindsey Rivet, senior biology major and co-president of Students With A Vision, the club that organizes Box Town., . Facts and statistics about homelessness are written on the boxes to help students understand the reality of the issue.

Box Town has sometimes been canceled because of poor weather -- which Vega finds ironic. “I always think in my mind, there are so many homeless individuals out there,” she said. “They don’t get to check out of being homeless that day because of the rain or because it’s very cold.”

Students With A Vision goes beyond just learning about community problems to helping alleviate some of them. It assists in the Four Freedoms Week food drive and regularly has students helping clean up, paint, and organize classrooms and hallways in local schools.

Fisher isn’t the only area school that helps out in the community. Rochester Institute of Technology also has volunteer services to get students involved.

“We work with organizations such as Open Door Mission, Catholic Family Center, Mary’s Place, Foodlink, and other local food pantries,”  Hunter Hoffman, an undergraduate assistant at the Leadership Institute & Community Service Center of Rochester Institute of Technology, said in an email. “Currently, we are participating in a program where we have ‘adopted’ two low-income families for donating non-perishable food items as well as gift cards for Wegmans, Tops, etc., so that they can enjoy a Thanksgiving dinner,.”

Another volunteer organization on RIT’s campus,  Recover Rochester, collects leftover food from the dining halls and restaurants on campus, and donates it to food cupboards and soup kitchens.

Students at Nazareth College have an impact in the city of Rochester, too.

“Our approach is always to partner with the people that we are working with and so we go into the organization that are there, find out what the challenges are, what resources we have, what opportunities they have, and match that,” said Adam Lewandowski, associate director at the college’s Center for Civic Engagement.

Among the many programs at Nazareth, Lewandowski said two strong ones are Partners for Learning and Partners for Serving. “These programs were specifically developed with community partners in the city of Rochester predominately with an anti-poverty focus, but they take varied approaches.”

Partners for Learning has an educational focus in which 135 student volunteers each year travel to eight different community sites and city schools and provide services such as tutoring, mentoring, teachers’ assistance, and more. Partners for Serving, with 45 students a year, runs programs on runaway youth, rehabilitation, domestic violence, and more.

Lewandowski said Nazareth’s social work faculty also play an administrative role in project Homeless Connect. The event takes place at Blue Cross Arena and is an open service fair for people who are homeless or at risk for being homeless.

“They can come in and connect with a bunch of different organizations and get assistance,” Lewandowski said. “The faculty members help coordinate that, but they also have their students and general volunteers from the college come support that project.”

Their overall approach is to empower the people and combat homelessness and poverty, by preventing it in future generations.

“We try to do more sustained relationships where the students have an opportunity to contribute over a longer period of time. It makes a bigger impact on what’s going on,” he added.

Events such as these help make college students part of the solution to community poverty.

“We have had college/university classes, fraternities, sororities, clubs, etc., come and volunteer for us,” Julie Burke, the development manager at FoodLink, said in an email. “In a given year, we have more than 15,000 volunteers, and it saves us the cost of more than 20 full-time employees.

“Overall, we are thrilled with our college and university partnerships,” Burke said. “We could not do all that we do without the help of concerned and compassionate students in our community.”

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The Hunger Banquet

St. John Fisher College’s annual Hunger Banquet helps show students what it’s like to live in food insecurity, defined as not knowing where the next meal is coming from, or whether it will come at all.

Upon entering the Hunger Banquet, the students are handed a ticket that determines which social class they are in: lower, middle, or upper. Most of them are placed in lower class, representing the large number of people around the world who live without secure access to food.

“I really like the idea of the students coming in and we give them tickets. It’s showing them it’s just by chance. It’s a shock factor,” said Juana Vega, assistant director at the Office of Multicultural Affairs and Diversity Programs at Fisher.

Students are seated at the banquet according to those classes. Lower class sits on the floor, middle often has chairs, and the upper class sits at a table. Then, the students are fed. Lower class gets rice. The middle class is given something with the rice, while the upper class is served a several-course meal.

“Time and time, year after year, it’s always intriguing to me to go to the stage and to notice the 10 students that get chosen to eat the five-course meal, they don’t even eat,” Vega said. “They barely eat anything just because they’re so embarrassed that their peers don’t have what they have.”

This way of getting the students involved brings the reality to them. Homelessness and food insecurity are easy to hide if we choose to ignore it. However, Vega explained, the shock factor is really what opens the eyes of the students to what really is happening in their own back yard.

The banquet also includes presentations by local food cupboards on how food drives help them and the effect a single donation can have. Some of the past presenters have been FoodLink, Pittsford Food Cupboard, Ibero Emergency Food, and St. Mary’s Place.

This story by Olivia Lopez is part of a journalism collaboration between WXXI and St. John Fisher College, giving aspiring student journalists the opportunity to report on and create stories for WXXI listeners, viewers, readers.