Aspen High students learn about life in the ‘hood
October 2, 2005
The majority of Aspen High School students in this fall’s Experiential Ed program went off on adventures in the great outdoors of the West, riding horses or hiking or boating through the wild high country.But one group took a trip into the bowels of urban America, spending a week getting up-close and personal with the realities of the homeless and poor in New York City.Formally named “New York City – Helping the Homeless,” the trip has earned a less official nickname among those who have taken it: “Hangin’ in the Hood.”Fifteen Aspen students flew in early September from Denver to New York City and took the subway from there into a predominantly Latino and Puerto Rican neighborhood in the Bronx, one of the city’s five boroughs. Walking from the subway station to their destination, nervously lugging baggage down the dark streets, they couldn’t see the faces of those yelling at them from all sides.Senior Rachel Weitzenkorn said they were told that they were in “a really good block,” with little danger of harm. But one street away, said senior Rueben Sadowsky, was a street across the “red line” that was known to be “a killing zone.”Sophomore Amanda Cunningham said at first the neighborhood kids thought they were evacuees from Hurricane Katrina, which struck the Gulf Coast only days earlier. But as soon as they settled into their temporary home, the mingling began and such misunderstandings were cleared up.They served food in a soup kitchen known as POTS (Part Of The Solution), run an organization that operates out of two different buildings and offers a variety of services to those who have hit a low point. It also was where the Aspen group slept every night – on the floor, with sleeping bags spread out in random arrangements. And every day, like grunts at boot camp but with a softer schedule, they had to have their gear stowed away neatly by 9 a.m. and be ready to go to work.”They want to keep it really nice for the people that come there, and not make them feel degraded,” teacher Karen Jaworski explained, citing a shelter system rule that POTS has adopted.
The Aspen students also went out at night in special meals-on-wheels vans run by the Coalition for the Homeless – five students per van – handing out food to all comers.”It’s pretty much, whoever wanted this food, they’d let them have it,” Weitzenkorn said, adding that one of the customers reputedly was a woman from a wealthy neighborhood who regularly sought food from the vans.”She had some mental issues. I think she just wanted the company,” Jaworski said.As the Aspen kids got to know their new neighbors, there were moments of friction, particularly among the girls.”Their [the neighborhood’s] girls were extremely threatened by the few [Aspen] girls who would go out and talk to the guys” on the street, Sadowsky said. He reported that one night some girls who went out wandering on their own got a scare when a bunch of young men surrounded them. A concerned Sadowsky walked over to defuse the situation and succeeded, he said.Weitzenkorn recalled that she liked to go out to the street and talk with locals.”The guys were nice, but they were forward. They were, like, ‘You wanna smash?'” That, she said, was the local slang for having sex.”They all just wanted white girls,” she said matter-of-factly.
Was she ever worried about the way things might go?”Yeah,” she answered, after a moment’s thought.But the trip certainly was not all work and tension.One night, some of the group went to the Apollo Theater in Harlem, where they were the only white people in sight. Sadowsky climbed on stage for the Amateur Night dance-off, and took fourth place.”I got a lot of compliments,” he said with a grin.On their last day in NYC, the kids of Aspen were sent out to specific parts of the city to simply hang out, observe and interact with the locals – but without any money in their pockets.”You just walk around, can’t buy anything. You see food, you smell it, you can’t buy it,” Sadowsky said. Among other things, he said the trip taught him empathy for those who live that life day-in and day-out with no relief, while he and the rest of the Aspen contingent “had to wear those shoes for a couple of hours.”Sadowsky also said the NYC trip was not his first choice (he didn’t say what was), but that he was glad he ended up going.
“I wouldn’t have preferred any other trip,” he declared, adding that his parents were “stoked” when they heard about it. He said that throughout the experience the students “all got along together … we kind of bonded.”Weitzenkorn said her parents were definitely not stoked about the trip, and that in fact they gave her a can of pepper spray as added security – which she deliberately left at home.”It’s so fulfilling,” Cunningham said. “You know that you’ve accomplished a little bit” in bettering the lives of at least a few people.Added Weitzenkorn, “It’s really fun, but it’s an experience that you wouldn’t have otherwise. For me, I think it really is going to influence my choices for the future.””This trip attracts altruistic, highly motivated students who want to learn more about the world they live in,” said Jaworski, who created the “New York service trip” back in 1998.Jaworski, originally from New York and a former teacher in the public schools there, personally scouted out the locations where the kids would spend their time and arranged to have two police officers accompany the group as a measure of security.She noted that this year’s trip almost didn’t come off because the price of the traditional chartered bus ride from Aspen to Denver skyrocketed. But an AHS alumnus, Kevin Smiddy, “bailed us out” by providing a stretch limo from his company, at cost, for the ride to Denver.John Colson’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org