ROCHESTER — Sixteen-year-old Nick Croce of Fairport was chatting with a Habitat for Humanity homeowner who visited a Habitat job site where Nick had been working in July.
The Aquinas Institute junior jokingly asked the homeowner if she wanted to put in a pool in her new back yard. She responded seriously, saying all she wanted was a nice treehouse for her kids.
Nick said it was then that he was reminded of how much all people have in common.
“It doesn’t matter where we live,” he said. “We all want the same things in life.”
Nick was one of a dozen area teens getting an up-close look at poverty and housing issues in Rochester through Flower City Habitat for Humanity’s weeklong Youth Immersion Program July 21-25. The event was the first such program conducted by the Rochester-based Habitat for Humanity, and, according to organizers, there is only one other local Habitat immersion program like it in the United States.
The program was organized by Sister of St. Joseph Marie Susanne “Sue” Hoffman, Flower City Habitat for Humanity’s high-school and college-program coordinator.
Participating students, who lived in community for a week at the former Holy Family Parish convent in Rochester, ranged in age from 16 to 18 and hailed from Aquinas Institute, Brighton High School and Our Lady of Mercy High School. One participant is a Brighton resident who attends school in Switzerland.
During the week, the students worked several days at a Habitat construction site in Rochester’s JOSANA neighborhood; worked at Habitat ReStore, a home-improvement outlet on Culver Road that raises money for Habitat; took a bus tour of some of Rochester’s poorest neighborhoods; volunteered at St. Peter’s Kitchen, a ministry that provides hot lunches to those in need; spoke with Habitat homeowners and Habitat supporters; and learned what it’s like to live on a poverty budget of $10,500 a year.
“It challenges us to decide what to sacrifice,” said Matt Briars, 16, a student at Aquinas Institute. “We are used to having luxuries of cell phones and cable and Internet.”
Matt said he found the poverty bus tour one of the most eye-opening parts of the week.
“We would go through one section of the city where there were vacant lots everywhere, and it didn’t look inviting, and then we would go to another part of the city where there were mansions and well-kept million-dollar homes,” Matt said. “Just a mile down the block was the area where poverty is.”
Living and working alongside people in poverty, the students get a firsthand look at how difficult it is to get out of poverty, said Rachel Holding of Brockport, who teaches biology and chemistry at Our Lady of Mercy High School.
“Most people drive on expressways and never see these neighborhoods; they never know they are here,” said Holding, a parishioner of St. John the Evangelist Church in Spencerport who was president of SUNY Fredonia’s Habitat for Humanity chapter during her college years.
The immersion program challenged students to look closely at some of the signs of poverty, including broken and boarded-up windows, said Jingwen Hu, 17, a senior at Brighton High School. They also were told to consider where they might shop if they were trying to live on a tight budget.
“There is no Wegmans,” Jingwen said. “There is only a corner grocery.”
For Amanda Eichas, 17, a senior at Aquinas Institute, the most eye-opening part of the program was to learn how happy families are to be working toward receiving a Habitat home. Homeowners are required to put in 250 hours of “sweat equity” on their own home and 250 hours on another Habitat home. Amanda said she was struck by how proud Habitat homeowners are of things that she takes for granted.
Sister Hoffman said such reactions were typical of those she heard throughout the week.
“The students are eager to learn and enthusiastic,” Sister Hoffman said. “They are hard workers and they ask some very good questions: the realities of poverty, why people are homeless, and what can be done about it.”
Even as he is making plans to become a macroeconomist, Nick said the week left him pondering what he will be able to do about poverty in the future.
“It’s definitely guiding me, if not in what I want to be when I grow up, but in who I want to be as a person,” he said.