Naropa Magazine Spring 2014
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COR220 students at the Gathering Place

Learning in Action

by Lisa Birman, MFA

Last semester's Community-Based Learning and Action students took their classroom to The Gathering Place, a Denver-based drop-in center for women, children, and transgender individuals experiencing poverty and homelessness. Committed to concerns around food security and food justice, Associate Professor Candace Walworth initiated this collaborative service learning opportunity after meeting a staff member at a Grow Local Colorado event.

On an initial visit to the center, students met with Justine Zollo, then volunteer manager. They toured The Gathering Place, learning about its history and how it fits into the larger network of organizations serving the homeless population in Denver. Melody Markel recalls a transformative interaction with Justine, "She said, simply, the problem with asking why the women sitting in the lobby, "aren't pulling themselves up by their bootstraps?" is all of the assumptions behind that question. Someone who asks that is assuming, 1. They know where their bootstraps are, 2. They have the strength to pull, and 3. They're wearing boots at all. This gave me a new understanding about compassion and justice." Candace reports that Justine's metaphor reverberated throughout the semester.

students work at the Gathering PlaceInspired by their visit, the students dived into planning their Community Service Day, auspiciously scheduled for Halloween. Given their goal of serving lunch to two hundred people, there was plenty to do.

With a background in culinary arts and catering, Viviana Arturo was excited about getting back into the kitchen. Though concerned about the time commitment, she stepped into a leadership role as head chef. She was relieved to find that the class's collaborative decision-making and planning offered plenty of support. Together they designed a seasonal menu featuring vegetarian wraps, Spanish coleslaw (Viviana's aunt's recipe), and fruit salad.

The week before Halloween was especially hectic. Students had to acquire not just the ingredients, but also storage and transport to get the food to Denver safely. Stonebridge Farms generously donated vegetables, and Viviana busily planned everyone's roles in the kitchen.

The class decided to get into the Halloween spirit, and everyone got dressed up in costumes for the day—a particularly popular decision with the children. The collaborative efforts in the kitchen extended beyond the Naropa classmates, with volunteers and staff from The Gathering Place making sure that time constraints and health and safety issues were addressed. Viviana reports that while their advice was firm, it was also welcoming. "They were concerned about us, and about us meeting our deadline. It was so honest."

As well as preparing and serving lunch, some students sat down to eat with the guests. Sharing food, stories, and space, many students reported that this was a particularly meaningful part of their day.

New volunteer policies at The Gathering Place mean that this semester's COR220 class won't be able to return for a second day of service this spring. Instead, they are organizing a day at Isabelle Farm in Lafayette. Candace is hoping to work with The Gathering Place over the summer to create a sustainable partnership. If they do make it back, Viviana's hoping to tag along.

Learn about Naropa's Peace Studies major.