After a week full of emotionally heavy topics in Chicago, it was time to head south for a little Southern hospitality. The students would spend the last portion of their domestic travel in Eastern Tennessee with the Once Upon A Time organization, learning about the Cherokee and rural poverty in the Appalachian region. In Chicago, the students completed their “Separate but Equal” and the Myth of the American Melting Pot unit for their American Myths course and moved on to their final unit: Education, Vocation, and the Dream of Community.
We first met Ed and Arleen Decker, the founders of Once Upon a Time and overall wonderful people. They have been hosting Alternative Breaks groups for eight years on their property and have almost perfected the organization and planning that goes into hosting a group of college students for a whole week. Our itinerary started off with a service project for the National Parks Service in nearby Smoky Mountains National Park. The students lent a helping hand in collecting seeds from several plants, including mountain mint, swamp sunflower, and sneezeweed. These plants are native to the region but have been choked out due to invasive species. The Park Service will take the seeds we collected and plant them next year as a way to reintroduce the native plants and return some of the meadows back to the original vegetation.
Next up for service was a day of homesteading at the Once Upon a Time property. Tasks completed ranged from picking potatoes and harvesting muscadine grapes to winterizing the garden and canning blackberry jam. Besides keeping the food budget in line for visiting college groups, Ed and Arlene like to impart the art (and satisfaction!) of growing one’s own food and being self-sufficient in as many ways as possible. They have successively attempted to make their homestead more environmentally sustainable, including logging trees off their property to build additional bunkhouses and out-buildings. In addition to homesteading, the students also worked on removing invasive privet shrubbery and honeysuckle vines at the Once a Upon a Time Nature Preserve, a separate parcel of land intended for conservation purposes.
Our final two days with Once Upon a Time were spent in North Carolina at the Snowbird Cherokee Reservation, the Eastern branch of the Cherokee Nation. Our service would encompass much of the human life cycle, including visits to the Senior Center, the Youth Center, and the Child Development Center. All three centers offer their programs and services to Cherokee and non-Cherokee local residents. We joined a group of seniors for crafts and conversation, assisted with the after school program run by the local Boys and Girls Club, and engaged in playtime with toddlers and preschoolers.
Later, the students had the chance to play the “fish game,” which is a traditional courtship game between men and women. The object of the game is to hit a fish located high up on a pole with a ball. Men must use a stick similar to a lacrosse stick and cannot touch the ball with their hands. Females, however, are allowed to use their hands to throw the ball and also are free to bite, kick, or scratch as needed. Traditionally, if the male doesn’t lose his cool, he is considered a suitable marriage companion for the female. Unfortunately, no engagements were announced at the end, but the women won by a score of 6-1.
Ed and Arleen made sure the students didn’t miss out on any opportunities to learn traditional Appalachian culture and appreciate the area’s beauty. One night included a “hootenanny” of traditional mountain music and dancing at Rocky Branch Elementary School in Maryville, Tennessee. Later in the week, some adventurous students got up early to hike in the rain in Nantahala National Forest.
The end of the week in Tennessee also signaled the end of the domestic travel portion of the Gap Experience semester. The return to Wisconsin marked about 6,400 miles of driving over the course of the first two months through 11 different states, including traffic jams in five of them. A seven-day-long fall break is in order for the students after they submitted their final papers, discussion questions, and journals to Dr. Egan-Ryan. After the much needed break, the Gap heads even farther south — this time to St. Lucia for six weeks of service with The Good News Project, a humanitarian non-profit based out of Wausau, Wisconsin. The Gap students will be assisting Good News Project staff & volunteers in building homes for several indigent families. Additionally, they will be completing their third course for the semester – Exploring Cultural Imperialism and Hegemony in the Caribbean: Past and Present. Stayed tuned for future blog postings from St. Lucia!