On Spring Break, Students Serve Cape Verde's Poor

By Sandra Howe
Staff Writer

Twenty two Boston College students spent last week's semester break in a climate where warmth was abundant - and not just because of the weather.

Accompanied by Dean of Student Development Robert Sherwood, the students journeyed to Cape Verde, a small group of islands off of Africa's west coast, for a spring break community service project. The trip was sponsored by the University's Cape Verdean Student Association and modeled after the Ignacio Volunteer Programs run by the University Chaplaincy, which focus on working with the poor in underdeveloped countries.

Boston College students Amilcar Lopes '98, and Panette Tucciarone '98, paint one of a series of murals on a playground wall in Cape Verde last week. It was one of several services the students performed while in the country. (Photo by Robert Sherwood)

Cape Verdean Student Association president Paulo Abu-Raya '96, who led the trip to his native island of St. Vincent, said the association's main objective is to promote diversity on campus and educate people about Cape Verde culture. While he is proud of the many speakers and social events the group has sponsored, he felt that a first-hand experience to show his fellow students the reality of life in Cape Verde would be "worth a thousand lectures." The best way to give students such an experience, he thought, was to organize a service trip where they could immerse themselves in the culture and help the people at the same time.

In addition to their service work, students had several opportunities to interact with the Cape Verdeans, who were eager to share their culture. The students found the Cape Verdean people sociable, vibrant and generally happy despite their limited resources, Abu-Raya said. They also had an unexpected and valuable lesson on living with meager resources when they used up their week's water supply in only two days and had to arrange for a special delivery of more.

"I wanted the students to not only learn about the culture," Abu-Raya said, "but see that there are people in the world who live in extreme poverty yet are still happy, so they'd come back with an appreciation of what they have here in the United States."

The students - the first from Boston College to travel to Africa on a service trip - worked at a hospital, an orphanage and a high school during their week-long stay on the island, one of 10 that make up Cape Verde. At the hospital, they worked with children and painted a series of colorful murals on the playground walls, which were dirty from years of neglect, according to Sherwood. While the children were leery of the visitors at first, he said many of them grew attached to the students by the end of the week.

"It was sad to see them cry as we left," said Osvaldo Monteiro '98, treasurer of the Cape Verdean Student Association and a former resident of Cape Verde.

The group also visited a ceramics facility and a volcano, had dinner with the mayor of their host city, and watched a special performance by the local high school students.

While many Cape Verdean Student Association members are of Cape Verdean descent, only a handful have lived in or even visited the country, according to Sherwood, which made the experience all the more meaningful. During the group's first evening on St. Vincent, they met with four elders from the community, who began tracing the roots of the students with Cape Verdean heritage.

"It was amazing," said Sherwood. "We weren't there 24 hours and here these women were recounting family stories to the students. It was very powerful."

All the students, with or without ties to Cape Verde, were enthusiastic about making the trip and getting a sense of daily life in a Third World country. The group had held weekly meetings to prepare for the project, hearing presentations on the islands' culture, economy and food by those who had visited or lived there.

Sherwood noted that this is the first inter-cultural group to organize a trip like this and given its success, he suspects others will follow suit. He said he enjoys such opportunities for performing community service, especially with the students.

"I think it's important for other adult members of the Boston College community to roll up their sleeves, help out, and lead the students by example," said Sherwood, who went on a similar excursion to Jamaica two years ago through the Ignacio Volunteer Program.

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