CINCINNATI - Hearing the personal stories of people struggling with poverty can help foster understanding and compassion from those who lead more fortunate lives. That is the concept behind Rooted in the Vine, a weeklong, inner-city immersion experience for high school students.
Eleven students from local high schools spent last week seeing a different side of their city by hearing directly from the people who are dealing with challenges of social injustice and inequality in Cincinnati.
“Our goal is that the students walk away from the experience more aware of people’s struggles, more concerned, and inspired to do what they can in their communities to live charitably, but also to act justly and to think about the systems and structures that often perpetuate inequality in our community,” said Nick Hosmer, program director at Ozanam Center for Service Learning at St. Vincent de Paul, which leads Rooted in the Vine.
Throughout the week, students shared a meal with visitors at Our Daily Bread, which provides meals and social services in Over-the-Rhine. They also participated in a role-playing poverty simulation activity, went on home visits through St. Vincent de Paul’s outreach program, toured Lower Price Hill and played with children in a summer program in that same neighborhood. They spent time at the beginning and end of each day in prayer and reflection.
The idea behind the immersive retreat is to help this group of teenagers — who already have a history of more traditional community service activities such as canned food drives — think deeply and compassionately about the people impacted by poverty by sharing experiences with those affected, Hosmer said.
“It was a week away from my summer, but for me it was an opportunity I didn’t want to miss,” said St. Xavier High School junior Anaga Dezoysa from Middletown. “I’ve always been interested in service and giving back to my community, but this is a whole different level of service.”
Rooted in the Vine is a collaboration between St. Vincent de Paul’s Ozanam Center for Service Learning and the Archdiocese of Cincinnati Offices of Catholic Social Action, and Youth and Young Adult Ministry. It was first launched in 1988 as TACKLE — an acronym for Teens Advocating Change through Knowledge, Leadership and Experience — by local youth minister Joanie Schaffer. In 2012, the program was renamed Rooted in the Vine and St. Vincent de Paul took over as facilitators.
Students hear about the retreat either through their high school — if they attend a Catholic school — or through their Catholic parishes. A $175 fee covers their costs for the week. The students reside at St. Vincent de Paul’s Liz Carter Outreach Center in the West End for the retreat, which took place June 26-July 1.
“For high schoolers, they are still forming opinions and coming into who they are, and they need to be aware of the community in which they live. It may not be an immediate impact on them, but it is planting the seeds for the future and they are our future leaders — they are responsible for the next generation and changing the city of Cincinnati,” said Rob Sander, a leader/chaperone for Rooted in the Vine who works as director of campus ministry at Purcell Marian High School during the school year.
Issues of inner-city poverty were a central focus of the week, but the group also explored other topics. One day was spent in Brown County to learn about challenges specific to rural poverty. The students also toured the Hamilton County Justice Center and met with a group of previously incarcerated people to learn about the roadblocks they face when trying to start anew.
Students also visited the Intercommunity Justice and Peace Center downtown, which works to end the death penalty in Ohio, provides education about human trafficking, advocates for immigrants’ rights, and works toward peace and nonviolence. The teens learned more about complex immigration issues through a visit to Holy Family Church in Price Hill, which has a growing Latino community.
Montgomery resident and Moeller High School sophomore Peyton Bambauer’s family has always been active with community service but he thinks his week with Rooted in the Vine will push him to do even more.
“This is giving me a better understanding of poverty and its causes. Someone could have missed a payment and become evicted — you don’t know,” Bambauer said.
And that is what Hosmer hopes the students are taking away from this experience — the ability to walk in someone else’s shoes, withhold judgment about them and, ultimately, to find deeper ways to help.
“The Rooted in the Vine experience is just a beginning,” Hosmer said. “When the retreat ends, it is the commencement, it is the sending forth back into the community to have them (the students) become the change we think God is calling us to — to produce a more just and peaceful community.”