For some island kids, overnight trips to the mainland are no big deal. For others, a night or two in a strange place, especially with teacher chaperones and not parents, is a truly daunting prospect.
For that reason, we try to regularly build overnight off-island experiences into the North Haven Community School curriculum. This spring, I took on leadership of a service learning trip, one of the first of its kind for North Haven high school students. Although only about a third of our high school students took the plunge and went off island, it was an enriching and positive experience for them—and for me.
We started the trip with a drive to Portland, where we first visited Cultivating Community. The non-profit urban gardening outfit has locations in Portland and Lisbon and offers community gardens, affordable fruits and vegetables, and farming jobs for recent immigrants. After a quick tutorial on correct weeding techniques, my four brave students got to work and quickly filled 5-gallon buckets with grass and weeds.
We ate sandwiches under the grape pergola and walked a few blocks to our next stop, the Telling Room. Although there was no community service for us there, we heard an overview of its incredible writing program and sent the students into the Old Port for a creative brainstorming exercise. For some, it was their first encounter with the cobblestone streets and bustling storefronts.
We walked another ten minutes to the Preble Street Resource Center, a shelter, soup kitchen, and support service serving nearly half of Maine’s homeless population, according to volunteer coordinator Tori Stenbak. Stenbak explained the services and sent us out armed with rolling trash cans, gloves, clawed trash pickup sticks, and a dustpan and broom to make a dent in the considerable litter surrounding the shelter.
Walking slowly through what might be considered a dangerous section of Portland, students were moved to compassion by the hundreds of people visiting Preble Street for food, shelter, and short or long term support, and were genuinely rewarded by the repeated “thank you” they heard.
We’d planned a frugal visit to Pizza Hut that evening before the student council-sponsored trip to Get Air, the indoor trampoline park, but with only four students, my co-chaperone and I decided to seize the opportunity and took them to Kon Asian Bistro, a massive hibachi restaurant near our hotel in South Portland. One student, who had lived in Japan with his stepfather, a Marine, instructed another in proper chopstick technique. Fried ice cream, mochi, and a student’s first attempt at eating a maki roll were all memorable, as were the bursts of flame from the hibachi table behind us.
After dinner and an hour of trampoline time, the students were exhausted but gratified by their accomplishments.
We drove to Lewiston after breakfast the next morning and spent six hours staining and sealing the front porches of 14 housing units owned and maintained by Community Concepts which provides affordable homes for nearly 100 new Mainers. Most are recent or more established immigrants from Central and Eastern African countries, typically Somalia.
As we swept, taped, and painted, a few of the younger residents peeked through the windows and started conversations with the students. We watched women in hijabs meeting their children at the school bus, and our students absorbed the direct impact we were making on people whose lives were unfathomably different—yet mundanely so similar—to theirs.
We rewarded the hard work with a trip to the Auburn Mall, buffalo wings for dinner, and a screening of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (full disclosure—I was as excited as the students to see the film, if not more). Exhausted again, and very pleased with their accomplishments, they went to sleep to prepare for the final day.
We drove back to Rockland, finally, and spent a few hours visiting OUT Maine. Many are not aware of the incredible range of services they provide, from a safe space for LGBTQI youth, to educational outreach for teachers, parents, and communities. We’ve benefited from their expertise on North Haven more than once already.
After some background information and an ice breaker game, we grabbed markers and made posters for their table at the Belfast Pride event. Although embracing the full LGBTQI spectrum was probably the activity farthest out of student comfort zones, they were gracious, open-minded, and willing to receive and consider new information.
During a lunch debrief, I was proud to hear students articulate their experiences: the compassion they felt for the homeless people around Preble Street, the satisfaction they felt in improving the homes of the adorable kids they befriended in Lewiston, and even the discomfort they acknowledged and worked through at OUT Maine. They were proud of themselves for trying new foods, and hopeful that their positive experience will help demystify off-island trips for students in the future.
I hope so, too.
Courtney Naliboff is a theater and music teacher who lives on North Haven with her husband and daughter.