By Eli Davis
University of Maryland students participated in a Hillel-sponsored alternative spring break trip to the Mississippi Delta that focused on how agriculture, poverty, education and food insecurity affects the area.
Dena Lehmann, a senior biochemistry major, along with 12 other university students, started their volunteering by tutoring students at Delta Streets Academy, a private school for boys in the seventh to ninth grades. T-Mac Howard, the school’s founder, created the school to help “students who fell through the cracks of the public school system,” Lehmann said.
She pointed out that many ninth grade students had the reading ability of a fourth grader.
“All odds are against them,” she said. “We are quick to blame someone, but it’s a problem with the system.”
The students also volunteered with Mississippians Engaged in Greener Agriculture (MEGA), a non-profit organization focused on sustainable farming, to teach students at Brooks Elementary School about the importance of nutrition.
“Obesity is not their fault because they do not have access to healthy foods,” Lehmann said. Maryland students assisted MEGA with planting community gardens so the students could have vegetables as a healthy alternative to traditional snack foods.
Along with planting the gardens, MEGA holds classes for parents to teach them how to prepare healthier meals.
“The gardens are for the parents as well,” Lehmann said. “A lot of them do not know what to do with a pepper.”
The segregation that still exists in the Delta region stood out most to Lehmann. “Race relations are not what they should be,” she said.
“One thing I am still processing is the segregation…it is very apparent,” said Corinne Bernstein, engagement associate for the University of Maryland’s Hillel and staff leader for the trip.
Howard took the University of Maryland students on a tour through various parts of Greenwood, Miss. In South Greenwood, an African-American community, there is an abundance of violence and drug abuse, according to Lehmann.
North Greenwood, a white community, is “a totally different world with sprawling houses,” she said. “There is real segregation here.”
Lehmann, who has participated in other community service trips through Hillel to Nicaragua and Ghana, used this trip has an opportunity “to gain perspective of poverty in the U.S. before heading out into the workforce.”
One of two seniors on the alternative break, Lehmann was often referred to as “the mamma of the trip,” Bernstein said. “I saw her as someone who was very comfortable helping students who were struggling with heavy topics.”
Anna Koozmin, a sophomore behavioral and community health major, noted Lehmann’s experience leading and participating in alternative break trips. “She has been exposed to so much social justice work,” Koozmin said. “She was able to make sure everyone was doing ok.”
Lehmann has seen poverty all over the world and describes it as “an important and complex issue that cannot be solved in a week, but it’s important we see it first-hand to make change.”