Summer Stories: Building connections, from Dalton to Detroit

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DALTON — For the 20 teens and eight chaperones who took part in the FCC Dalton Youth Mission group trip to Detroit this summer, it was the youth of The Second Mile Center of Detroit that made all the difference.

It was the openness of the kids and teens of the city and the adults at the center that made it easier for the Dalton youths to be less intimidated by the blocks of boarded up homes and shops, the piles of trash and brush, the sounds of gunshots or the bullet holes in the buildings they were living and working in for the week.

The Dalton teens, who ranged in age from 14 to 18 years old, had never been to Detroit, nor did they understand completely how the city got into its current state of distress and dissonance. But the youths said they at least wanted people there to know that they care, and that there can be pathways to help themselves and others.

Jack Pudlo, 15, said, "One of the things I noticed was the big difference between wealth. On one block, you'd see nicer places, and the next one over, there would be total neglect."

"There were barely any people outside walking around, versus a city like New York," observed Jilly Cote, 14.

Noelle Furlong, also 14, said this initially made her feel "kinda scared" and "really nervous," but then she and the others on the trip began to realize that for many Detroit residents, these conditions and this environment is a fact of life.

"This was a new level of experience for us," said Kevin Huban, 15. "I mean, you hear about it but until you see it, you don't really understand. To know that this is happening in our own country, everyone's heart ached a little bit."

But after a 12-hour road trip by minivan, and a week left to make some inroads, the group didn't waste much time standing around feeling sorry for people.

The next day, they split up into smaller groups, and focused their efforts on assisting with environmental, construction and community service work, from landscaping and scraping paint off of chipping brick facades, to serving meals in church and community centers, to just being there for the dozens and dozens of children who visited The Second Mile Center each day.

The center opened in February 2007, and the Dalton Youth Mission group members called both it and its founder, Ruth Azar, "amazing." All the programs and services are provided for free to youths and teens, from homework help to games to faith teaching. Today, the center struggles with a waning endowment, and relies on volunteers and community supporters to help keep it in operation.

The Dalton teens said they saw first-hand how Detroit's young people, even behind smiles, have been affected by the chronic poverty, violence and apathy there.

According to a year-long study conducted last year by the Detroit Free Press, between 2009 and 2015, roughly 2 out of 5 city youths, or 43 percent, were victims of violent crimes such as homicide, sexual assault, aggravated assault and robbery. It's also estimated that more than half of Detroit kids and teens live below the poverty line.

Lucy Sears, 18, talked about spending time with a 5-year-old boy named Devin, who was very quiet. The first day that they met, she gave him a Nutri-Grain fruit and cereal bar for breakfast, which was all they had on hand. She watched the youngster eat half, "then he took the other half and carefully folded the wrapper around it and put it in his pocket. He said he had to save some for his baby sister."

Sears said the same little boy had two of his neighborhood schools close in the past year. "My hope for him is that this time next year, he can get an education. That's so important."

The Dalton students also noticed a sort of distance or guard among some of the older teens, but realized it was for good reason.

Julia O'Connor, 18, explained: "With the younger kids, you get so much love because you're giving them attention, and they'll take any attention because they may not be getting it at home. But as they get older and older, things change. I think they're used to people like us who are coming for a week and doing things but don't have to live here. This is their day-to-day."

"I hope the kids can see that there's more," said Tom O'Connor, 16. "I hope that they can get past poverty, and know that they're better than most people have planned for them. It's sad, but most people expect them to be nothing, just because of where they live."

As a parent of three boys, chaperone Cori Salvini said it was a "positive experience" to watch the Dalton teens "pulling together as a team" to do the work that they did, and become humbled.

Beth O'Connor is one of the advisors for the FCC Dalton Youth Mission program, which has revived its mission trips in the United States over the past four years.

The group, while based at the First Congregational Church in Dalton, opens up its trip to any interested youth in the community. The annual trip has expanded from 4 youths to 20, and has put the teens into struggling communities like Louisiana's 9th Ward in New Orleans and Tennessee's Appalachia region.

The Dalton teens do various fundraising events to fund their travel, food and other expenses throughout the year. Beth O'Connor said that after this summer's program in particular, there's already talk of returning to Detroit, with more families involved.

She said that they're going to try "to keep the connection going" with Ruth Azar and The Second Mile Center, "so our kids can continue to work with her kids."

To learn more about the program, look for "FCC Dalton Youth Mission Group" on Facebook.

The 2017 Dalton Youth Mission group:

Youth: Kelly McMahon, Kathryn Beaudoin, Julia O'Connor, Tom O'Connor, Suzie Stefanick, Lily Pudlo, Jack Pudlo, Katie Bachli, Olivia Furlong, Noelle Furlong, Cole Accardi, Lucy Sears, Freddy Sears, Griffen Salvini, Kevin Huban, Tyler Young, Cylas Emerson, Becca Morris, Jilly Cote, Emmy Cote.

Adults: Beth O'Connor, Craig Pudlo, Cori Salvini, Stephanie Morris, Charlotte Crane, Marty Huban, Eric Furlong, Sam Pascual.

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