By Johnny Jackson
McDonough resident, Denise Taylor, chose to spend her spring break on the streets of New York City. There, she met Leon, a homeless man with a thick Jamaican accent, who had run into some bad fortune before finding himself in soup lines.
Taylor could have spent her time relaxing at home. Instead, she spent the week working in soup kitchens and clothing stores for the underprivileged, like Leon.
She was one of nine Clayton State University students to participate in the university's first-ever "Alternative Spring Break" program, during the week of March 2-8. The students were split into two groups that traveled the city's different boroughs, serving the city's homeless population.
"The night we had dinner with the homeless, I sat with Leon," Taylor said. "He was from Jamaica. He was in the plumbing business, but he was hit hard [economically].
"He talked a lot about his feelings on the political race, child rearing," she said. "He just had a lot of opinions. And he smiled a lot, which made me think that he was really happy that someone was there to listen to him."
Individual stories of adversity are abundant in New York, she said.
"One man said he enjoyed drinking beer, and he drove a truck for a living," Taylor said. "He said he had to make a decision between the two and that he made the wrong decision."
Taylor, 47, is a non-traditional student at Clayton State. A junior now at the university, she is pursuing a degree in psychology and human services. She works two jobs during the day and attends evening classes at Clayton State.
Taylor went to Clayton State back in 1978-80, but didn't finish. She decided in 2004 to return.
"I wanted to do something for myself," she explained. "I want to go into crisis counseling. And I would like to do some more volunteer work. I would describe myself as a people person, someone concerned with others - concerned with the community."
For a person like Taylor, there is the "Alternative Spring Break" program, funded, in part, by Clayton State student fees. The cost of the program is subsidized with a $250 participation fee for students in the program.
"We wanted to give students something more constructive and positive to do with their spring vacation," said Eric Simon, the associate director of campus life at Clayton State. "We wanted to give students an opportunity to do something that was fun, educational, and meaningful. They develop a strong sense of community."
Simon said there are plans to expand the program, in New York City, and to Chicago next year.
"Even if it's one day to give of yourself, take the time to put yourself in someone else's place," Taylor said. "Every time you give, that helps someone else. And maybe, they, in turn, will help someone else. Every small, positive change can help make a larger one."
Taylor and others who participated in the program wrote blogs about their experiences. The blogs can be viewed at http://claytonaltspringbreak08.blogspot.com.