Students see how other half lives in Indy

by Barb Berggoetz

Jennifer Rudenko knows that the two days she’s spending with the homeless and the poor in Indianapolis won’t teach her everything about the ravages of poverty.

But the University of Notre Dame senior said participating in the college’s Urban Plunge program will at least give her a glimpse of the struggles some face.p. “You can help people more if you honestly understand where they’re coming from and really know what they’re going through,” the 20-year-old Evansville native said as she worked on a kitten jigsaw puzzle with two children staying at the Holy Family Shelter on the Near Southside.p. The past two nights, Rudenko, four other Notre Dame students and a St. Mary’s College student slept in sleeping bags on the shelter’s floor. By day, they’re working and learning in an inner-city environment foreign to them.p. The students are among 250 from the two colleges and Holy Cross College who are immersed in 40 cities for 48 hours throughout the country. It’s called “experiential learning” — taking students out of the classroom for firsthand experiences.p. Notre Dame’s program started about 20 years ago, and students have come to Indianapolis for the past decade. Now, many colleges have programs offering students all types of out-of-classroom experiences and community service opportunities — some for class credit, said Rebecca Pettit, director of urban programming for Notre Dame’s Center for Social Concerns.p. The center’s Urban Plunge program, worth one credit, is one of about 35 courses, summer and other experiential programs that will involve 1,000 students this year.p. “It’s helping students discern how serving others can be a part of their lives,” Pettit said.p. The Urban Plunge program, organized here by Marion Superior Court Judge David Dreyer, an alumnus, and the Notre Dame Club of Indianapolis, leads students to find out how their faith or personal beliefs can help them serve the less fortunate.p. Sophomore Megan Pfarr, of Indianapolis, hopes her encounters with people who need help will drive her passion for service. “I want to confirm my desire to be a missionary,” the 20-year-old Roncalli High School graduate said. On Wednesday, the students worked at Gleaners Food Bank of Indiana and combed city streets with two homeless-outreach programs. This morning, they’re serving food at the Cathedral Soup Kitchen and touring the Marion County Jail and Christamore House.p. Some students were uneasy about walking the streets at night. But not enough to keep them from seeing the troubles firsthand.p. “I’m definitely out of my comfort zone,” said Lindsay Greene, who grew up in a middle-class Fort Wayne suburban area. “The biggest reason I’m doing this is to put a face and name to a problem.”p. Relaxing with students in the lounge at Holy Family Shelter, resident Cherie Merriweather said the program is a good idea for students to “get down in the trenches and see what it’s like. They’ll get a sense of it here.”p. She came to the shelter Sunday with her two young children after escaping an abusive home. She admits to making some bad choices but wants to work and provide for her children. And the day care provided at the shelter will give her time to look for a good job.p. It’s stories like Merriweather’s that help students better understand that there are many reasons for homelessness and poverty, said Bill Bickel, shelter director.p. “It often dispels some of the myths about homeless families,” he said. “It’s not just as if they looked hard enough for a job, they’ll be OK.”

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