By Silvia Foster-Frau, fosterfr@grinnell.edu

While poverty is often discussed as a global issue, it is also important to remember the effects it can have closer to home. This spring break, Veronica Vergara ’15 and Tracy Pa ’15 aim to address this later phenomenon by leading an Alternative Break (or “AltBreak”)  project that will stay in Grinnell and work with local youth in impoverished situations.

The 10-student AltBreak will partner with the MICA (Mid-Iowa Community Action) organization’s Head Start preschool on Penrose Street. MICA is a private non-profit organization that, through a variety of initiatives, works to provide educational and community support to disadvantaged populations.

“[MICA’s] goal is providing a safe environment for the kids to come to school in,” Vergara said.

The Head Start program, which provides care to children of ages 3 and 4, employs a method of individualized support to help students develop the social skills necessary to succeed in school and beyond.

The name of their trip, “Building Bridges Toward Educational Success in Early Childhood,” succinctly sums up their mission.

“We’re basically there to do anything that MICA tells us,” Pa said. “It’s either working with the kids, playing with them, teaching them things, or… doing secretarial work. … Our main focus is to help the kids learn that education is fun.”

While Vergara and Pa acknowledge much of their agenda will be dictated by the needs of the Head Start staff, they also have their own ideas for projects and activities that they hope to engage the preschoolers in. One such project is the “backpack program.”

“We’re planning to start a backpack program, which is, I think, on the last Friday we’re there. We’re hoping to send each of the students home with a backpack with either food, coloring books, crayons, anything that will help them with their educational career,” Vergara said.

Vergara and Pa, who have already done some work in the Grinnell community, were astonished to learn about the inequality that exists within Grinnell—the very inequality MICA works to address.

“I don’t think [Grinnell students] realize that… half of Grinnell is a really wealthy community, but the other half is so poor. It’s really scary how big the socioeconomic divide is,” Pa said.

Vergara, Pa and the 10 other Grinnellians hope to equalize the chances in life of the Head Start preschoolers.

Vergara was drawn to the opportunity of leading the trip by her participation in AltBreak last year. As a leader, she hopes to replicate the uplifting experience she had last year and share it with other Grinnellians.

“It’s such a heart-warming kind of thing to be able to help others out, so I thought maybe I could lead a trip according to the issues that I’m passionate about and the people I want to help,” Vergara said.

For Pa, it was her sense of obligation to contribute to the greater community that led her to AltBreak.

“I want to give back to the Grinnell community for all that they’ve done for me,” Pa said. “Part of it is just giving back, and part of it is just that there’s so many problems here I just need to do something to fix, so I’m going to start by helping the little preschoolers.”

AltBreak leaders Vergara and Pa are starting small: working with little ones in a little town. But this does not mean their impact won’t be big.