Operation Help or Hush spends spring break in Ferguson

It was only the beginning of the third round of Ferguson Alternative Spring Break, and already tears had been shed and beliefs challenged.

Alternative spring breaks are far from a new idea. For years, thousands of college students have ventured away from the traditional fun-in-the-sun to dedicate their time to community service.

Large non-profit groups like United Way and Boys & Girls Clubs of America organize alternative spring breaks across the nation. Now joining those big names is a Ferguson-based grassroots organization, Operation Help or Hush.

Operation Help or Hush founders Charles Wade and Tasha Burton have sparked several initiatives for the Ferguson protest movement within the past seven months, including a transitional housing program and the photo project, Faces of The Movement. They launched Ferguson Alternative Spring Break in just a month of planning with the help of Ferguson Township Democratic Committeewoman Patricia Bynes.

Allina Mojarro, a community outreach coordinator with University of California – Santa Barbara, is helping to oversee around 45 students participating in the third week of Ferguson Alternative Spring Break.

Mojarro said the students she works with normally participate in two alternative spring breaks a year and have done a variety work, such as disaster relief, but felt “the relevance of the issues in Ferguson” finalized their plans to visit Missouri.

“It’s a little different than what we’re used to, but because it’s oriented toward service and education, it just seemed to fit really well,” Mojarro said.

Mojarro said she loved seeing students who don’t usually work together unite in solidarity. “A lot of the students used the phrase ‘once in a lifetime,’” Mojarro said.

Ferguson Alternative Spring Break began with a humble introduction to the community — picking up trash. Burton, who is a resident of Ferguson, said at first some students didn’t feel that trash collecting was important.

“When you are constantly presented with trauma over and over again, the last thing on your mind is picking up trash,” Burton said. “You are going to overlook it. As a member of this community, I had to tell them: Picking up trash is enough.”

When security guards in the Canfield Green Apartment complex told the group to stop picking up trash, one student broke down in tears.

“Why can’t I serve my people?” the student said.

They beautified a five-mile stretch of road from the Days Inn Hotel in Florissant to Greater St. Marks Church in Ferguson. Students also have attended St. Louis County Council meetings, participated in workshops about racism and organizing, and ended long days with active group discussions that sometimes extend into the early morning.

Most students took away a negative outlook from their St. Louis County City Council experience.

“Their body language says they are really waiting for people’s three minutes to be up,” one student observed.

Jamelia Harris, 20, said she has gained insight from Ferguson Alternative Spring Break.

“I’m coming to terms with my lack of sense of self,” Harris said. “I came here thinking that I had my life planned out, but you can’t talk about revolution when you are stuck in an institutionalized mind.”

Echoing Harris was 20-year-old Kyron Covington, who said he is still trying to figure out his purpose on this trip.

”It’s only the second day, and I don’t even know what to think,” Covington said. “Even as a black man, even as a student, am I buying into this capitalist system? Am I buying into revolutionary ideologies? Am I buying into my community as a student? Am I buying into helping communities through these avenues?”

Many of the students said they wanted to visit Ferguson so they could see the center of national attention for themselves.

“So many college students haven’t had the opportunity to be a part of this movement,” Wade said. “Mike Brown was killed on August 9, and so many students had to start school the next week.”

Ashley Baker, 20, said she came to Ferguson “to help and genuinely connect with people.”

“This is a really humbling experience,” Baker said. “It’s very liberating. Every morning when I wake up, I feel like I’ve let go of a lot things and I’m gaining newer things.”

#FergusonASB and #FergusonAlternativeSpringBreak are the hashtags used on Twitter. The last Ferguson alternative spring break week will take place April 4-11. You can find more information at fergusonalternativespringbreak.tumblr.com.

This story was published as part of a partnership between The Huffington Post and The St. Louis American.
by Mariah Stewart