CUMBERLAND - Caitlyn Anderson, a senior at Roger Williams University, could have spent her winter break this past January basking in the sun in Florida or doing any number of things college students do these days.
Instead, the 22-year-old Cumber-land resident volunteered her time and skills to help poor families in the deep South obtain affordable housing.
Anderson, a criminal justice major with a minor in psychology, was one of 10 university students who traveled to Tutwiler, Miss. as part of Habitat for Humanity's Collegiate Challenge alternative break program. As volunteers with the West Tallahatchie Habitat for Humanity, Anderson and her fellow students spent a week helping to construct new homes for families in need.
This was Anderson's third Habitat Collegiate Challenge alternative break program trip, which are held twice a year during winter and spring breaks. During this year’s spring break season, more than 600 groups are traveling to 185 locations and are donating $1.4 million to Habitat for Humanity. Over the past 22 years, more than 182,000 students have spent their school breaks volunteering with Habitat. They have contributed nearly $18 million in funding to the Habitat host affiliates where they have volunteered.
Habitat’s Collegiate Challenge is one of the many programs Habitat offers for youth ages 5 to 25. Habitat for Humanity International is an ecumenical Christian ministry dedicated to the cause of eliminating poverty housing. Since its founding in 1976, Habitat has built, rehabilitated, repaired or improved more than 400,000 houses worldwide, providing simple, decent and affordable shelter for more than 2 million people.
For Anderson, who graduated Cumberland High School in 2007, working for Habitat has not only been the ideal vehicle in her quest to become more involved in volunteerism and community service, it has helped her to grow closer to her fellow students and as a person.
"The program allows people from all around campus to bond and become a family through shared experiences," said Anderson, the daughter of Mark and Lisa Anderson of Fiske Avenue, Cumberland.
"On the first day we leave Roger Williams University we are all friends and when we return the last day to campus we are all family,' she said. "The trip allows for personal growth through learning new skills and pushing you to go outside of your comfort zone."
The 10 students, accompanied by two faculty advisors, boarded two vans for the 23-hour trip to Tutwiler, a town in Tallahatchie County, Mississippi, located about 70 miles south of Memphis, Tennessee. With a population of about 1,364 people, Tutwiler's sole bank and the town's grain elevator closed in 2000. The town does not have any clothing stores, drugstores or restaurants.
Many of the town's residents work in prisons located throughout the Mississippi Delta, casinos in Tunica, and poultry and chicken processing plants in the surrounding area. The biggest provider of local jobs is the Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility, a private prison for men that opened in 2000.
The median income for a household in the town is $18,958, and the median income for a family is $22,857. The per-capita income for the town was $7,177. About 32.1 percent of families and 38.5 percent of the population are below the poverty line, including 45.5 percent of those under age 18 and 31.1 percent of those age 65 or over.
"Driving over 23 hours across the country gives global perspective and for me personally being a Rhode Island native and going to school in Rhode Island I am not often able to travel and I loved being able to see other parts of the country," Anderson said. "To learn about poverty is so different from actually living in it for a week and the experiences you have when you go on these trips are so indescribable."
Anderson and her group worked four full days on one house, doing everything from priming and painting to sanding to putting up ceilings.
"Our work days were from 8 o'clock in the morning to 4 o'clock in the afternoon and we took an hour for lunch," she said.
Anderson said it was the residents of Tutwiler who made a lasting impression on her.
"The people of Tutwiler were overwhelmingly nice," she said. "We had the opportunity of attending a few pot luck suppers in the community and heard so many stories. Even though we were there to help them, we got so much back in return. They told us that they were fortunate to be the recipients of Habitat’s work, but we are the one who are fortunate."
Anderson said she didn't have much opportunity to get involved with volunteer work and community service in high school because she was so busy with sports. She's making up for lost time not only by participating in the Habitat Collegiate Challenge alternative break program, but she's also a new student orientation leader and first year students opportunity program advocate at Roger Williams University. She volunteers as a site leader for Community Connections and is an English tutor for Literacy Volunteers of Easy Bay where she helps non-English speaking adults improve their English language skills.
In the meantime, she maintains a 3.6 GPA at the university where she is a consecutive Deans List recipient and was awarded an Academic Achievement Scholarship.
When she graduates this year, Anderson wants to join City Year, a non-profit AmeriCorps organization whose primary goal is to build democracy through citizen service, civic engagement, leadership development, and social entrepreneurship. The program offers 17- to 24-year-olds the opportunity to engage in 10 months of full-time community service.
She's also applying to do social work at Child and Family.
Within the next two years she plans to start graduate school for psychology.
"Before that, though, I want to do what I can to help people because that's really what it's all about," she says. "Whenever I'm feeling down I realize there are thousands of people in much worse situations. And, hopefully, by helping people, doing something positive and making a difference, it will make me a better person."