Friday, April 27, 2001

Suburban students visit urban world




By Cindy Kranz
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Alexis Lawson and Mariel Holcombe-Epstein knew they weren't going to Over-the-Rhine to gawk at poverty. They were going to help. What they didn't know was how personal their experience would be.

        The Sycamore High School teens spent almost two hours in a beauty salon, washing the hair of poor and homeless men who asked them about their career plans and Sycamore's sports teams. If not for this moment, their paths might never have crossed.

[photo] Sycamore High School sophomores receive a tour of Over-the-Rhine from Wendell Williams.
(Mike Simons photo)
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        “I got mad at my mom one time for not buying me a shirt,” 16-year-old Alexis said at day's end. “People down here don't even have shirts.”

        Undeterred by recent riots, the 45 sophomore English students from Sycamore volunteered earlier this week in Over-the-Rhine. The trip came about after their teacher, Carol Cornwell, invited Wendell Williams, a former homeless man, to speak to her classes about homelessness. They planned the trip before riots erupted.

        “If anything, I feel more of an urgency for us to go now than even before,” Ms. Cornwell said.

        “My original hope and purpose in going was so the students would see what I called the eclectic juxtaposition of life, where side by side, you have Music Hall in all its beauty and grandeur, right next to Washington Park and the Drop-Inn Center and all the poverty that exists there.”

        Because of the riots, she said, students would see an even greater need to bridge the gap between ethnic and socioeconomic groups.

        The students also wanted to see for themselves the places Mr. Williams talked about. Like a pied piper, the 50-year-old Mr. Williams led the pack of students through Over-the-Rhine. They visited the Drop-Inn Center, Tender Mercies, Mary Magdalen House, St. John/Daymaker Beauty Salon, Peaslee Neighborhood Center, the FreeStore/FoodBank and the Over-the-Rhine Housing Network.

        Students volunteered at five of the sites, sorting clothes, stocking food shelves, washing hair, helping with day care, sorting toiletries and cleaning a vacant building to be rehabbed.

        Many students were impressed with the friendliness of the neighborhood.

[photo] Mariel Holcombe-Epstein washes the hair of LeAnder Hudson at the St. John/Daymaker Beauty Salon.
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        “I was expecting people to look at us and give us an attitude like, "Why are you coming here and gawking at us?'” said Beau Presnell, 16, who volunteered for the Over-the-Rhine Housing Network. “It's been nothing like that.”

        Ryan Klasmeier, Nathan Wallace and Christine Chernausek, all 16, volunteered at the Mary Magdalen House, where the homeless and the poor can come for a shower and to get their clothes cleaned. They talked as they removed soap bars from wrappers.

        Ryan had no misgivings about making the trip. “I figured our school wouldn't let us come down if it wasn't safe.”

        Kids should have this type of experience, Nathan said, so they'd be more appreciative of what they have. “Especially at Sycamore, where you've got a lot of rich kids whose daddy bought them a new Camaro because they crashed their Porsche.”

        “It helps open your minds,” Christine said. “Sometimes, you can't help it. That's why you end up down here. Like the guy at the Drop-Inn Center said, "It could be you.'”

        Over at Daymaker Beauty Salon, Alexis worked on 60-year-old Richard Green's hair. The West End man thought it's a good experience for these kids to visit Over-the-Rhine.

        “They get to see the other side of the tracks instead of reading about it. A lot of people have one concept of the poor. They have stereotypes. They get a chance to see it live and in living color.”

        Mr. Williams, who arranged all the stops, said the visit initially was planned as a tour, but he changed his mind. “It's wrong to be just voyeurs ... It's one thing to come and look and another thing to be part of the solution. Today, they're part of the solution.”

        After the riots, many adults chose to cancel events scheduled for Over-the-Rhine, he said. These kids could have canceled, too, but they didn't. “That says something about these young people. I'm sure a lot of parents weren't real comfortable with their decision.”

        Mr. Williams didn't take any chances and made sure the students stayed safe.

        At the end of the visit, the students ate lunch in Washington Park, the site of much hostility during the riots. Students brought two lunches, one for themselves and one to give to anyone they saw in the park.

        The students reflected on the day with their friends.

        Alexis and Mariel were impressed with how down-to-earth the beauty salon customers were. They were respectful and thankful for the teens' help.

        “They're still good people,” Mariel said. “That's overlooked a lot. The only division is the one we've made. If more people came down here, there wouldn't be a division.”
Archive of reports on the riots and their aftermath



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