EMU students headed to Kimball, West Virginia, pictured on left, and Georgia, right, for Y-Serve service learning trips over spring break. (Photos by Julie Weaver [left] and Dia Mekonnen)

Students recount experiences from Y-Serve trips to West Virginia, Atlanta

EMU sophomore Sara Kennel spent a gap year after high school working for service programs in Guatemala and Ecuador and immersing herself in their cultures.

During a spring break trip to Atlanta with Y-Serve last week, as she broke bread with families from Central and South America, she was instantly transported back to those days.

“Certain food smells or conversations we would have in Spanish — they would take me back,” the global development major said. “Other meals, like the one we had with the Burundi congregation, were vastly different from anything I’ve ever experienced before.”

Above: Members of EMU’s Y-Serve group traveled to Atlanta over spring break. Below: The group shares a breakfast. (Photos by Rosa Martin Fonseca)

Kennel, along with nine other EMU students and University Chaplain Brian Martin Burkholder, spent the week from March 2 to 8 in the Peach State for a Y-Serve service learning trip. Y-Serve is the longest-running student organization at EMU and aims to “serve others as the hands and feet of Jesus.”

Students worked on housing projects and yard beautification work during the Y-Serve trip to Atlanta. (Photos by Dia Mekonnen)

The Y-Serve group partnered with Casa Alterna, a Georgia-based nonprofit that welcomes and hosts asylum seekers and immigrant families. Together, they attended multicultural worship services, shared meals with asylees from Latin America and Africa and listened to their stories and experiences.

EMU students with Y-Serve shared meals with asylees from Latin America and Africa and listened to their stories and experiences. (Photo by Dia Mekonnen.

The group met with students at the International Community School, a public charter K-5 school that educates refugee, immigrant and local children. They toured downtown Atlanta and the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Park. They then traveled about 135 miles south to Americus, Georgia, where they visited the Koinonia Farm, a racially integrated Christian community and working communal farm founded in 1942.

Above: EMU students outside the International Community School. Below: EMU students visit the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Park in Atlanta. (Photos by Dia Mekonnen)

EMU junior and Y-Serve student leader Ruth Abera treasured the evenings they spent reflecting together as a group. Another highlight of her trip was meeting the founder of Refuge Coffee Co., a small coffee truck and coffeeshop in Clarkston, Georgia, that hires resettled refugees and immigrants and provides “a central place where different cultures can come together,” Abera said. 

“After hearing her story, I was like, ‘I’ve known you for five minutes and I want to be just like you,’” she said.

Students in the Y-Serve Atlanta group line up at a Refuge Coffee Co. coffee truck. (Photo by Rosa Martin Fonseca)

West Virginia

While their Y-Serve group traveled to Atlanta, another headed about 225 miles south and westward to Kimball, West Virginia. Kimball is in McDowell County, which is the third poorest county in the U.S. (2020 Census). From March 4 to 9, three EMU students and one alumnus volunteered with Sharing With Appalachian People (SWAP), a ministry program through Mennonite Central Committee, where they repaired houses, connected with local residents and reflected on how to live out their Christian faith.

EMU senior Laurel Evans, a bible, religion and theology major, served as student leader for the West Virginia Y-Serve group. Much of their work included installing metal flashing and a new roof on one side of a house, she said, as well as “lots of repainting.” 

EMU senior Laurel Evans, left, with fiancé Andrew Stoltzfus. (Photo by Peg Martin)

Her favorite part of the trip was getting to know the homeowners whose house they were repairing. 

“They were a lovely couple,” Evans said. “We took long breaks from our work to sit and have coffee with them and talk about our lives and God.”

EMU students Julie Weaver and Fortunata Chipeta take a break from home repairs. (Photo by Lee Martin)

Peg and Lee Martin serve with Mennonite Central Committee as SWAP location coordinators in Kimball. After their work during the day, Lee Martin would lead the group in devotionals and reflections. That week’s focus, Evans said, was on the Kingdom of God.

“That felt really important to the whole trip — how the Kingdom of God shows up in the small things, and in things we might not consider meaningful, affected how I saw the week,” she said.

EMU senior Julie Weaver, left, with alumnus Andrew Stoltzfus. (Photo by Julie Weaver)

Evans, who also led a Y-Serve group with Abera to Kimball over fall break, described the service trip as a “restful and productive experience.”

“I felt really well-rested from the week,” she said, “but I also know I made a decent difference in someone else’s life.”

The Y-Serve West Virginia group shares a meal. (Photo by Peg Martin)

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