Grateful and giving back: freshman has perspective change on alternative service break trip helping homeless youth

Grateful and giving back: freshman has perspective change on alternative service break trip helping homeless youth

Grateful and giving back: freshman has perspective change on alternative service break trip helping homeless youth
January 31
20:56 2018

Searching the small room for the first kid to help, 18-year-old public health freshman Cierra Black saw him through her black-rimmed glasses. It was snack time for the third through fifth graders she was volunteering with, and Phillip, the little boy, was trying to figure out his math homework.

It was only the first day of the UNT alternative service break trip Black was on that focused on serving homeless youth in Little Rock, Arkansas. She wasn’t sure what to expect, but she knew it was going to be a good week when she saw the way Phillip lit up as he finished his homework at the after-school youth program.

“Did I get it right? Did I get it right?” he said.

Discreetly checking her own answer and then looking at his, she nodded her head with a proud smile, and they both burst into a celebratory dance.

“It was just fulfilling for me because he got more joy out of doing it than I did,” Black said. “It made me feel like I was kind of being a mentor. That’s what I love is mentoring little kids and seeing them actually want to learn.”

This was the Frisco-native’s first ASB trip through the Center for Leadership and Service. She chose to apply for this trip because she had served with the homeless community before and wanted to make good use of her long winter break by serving others.

“When I saw that they were doing a trip on homelessness and youth I was like, ‘that’s exactly what I wanted and what I needed,’” Black said.

Black was one of 16 UNT students chosen to help with Our House, an organization that helps homeless and near-homeless families in the Little Rock community succeed in life. It is one of the five trips offered during Jan. 6-13 as winter break alternatives to the typical college break experience.

Cierra Black was a participant in the Alternative Service Break program in January 2018. Black worked to help impoverished communities in Little Rock, Arkansas. Matthew Hernandez

“We hope that [the students] come back empowered and motivated to be thoughtful in the choices they make and the choices their communities are making around them,” said Stephanie Knight, the director of the Center for Leadership and Service.

It was more than just an empowering trip. For Black, it was life-changing. As the only freshman on the trip, she was reminded of all she has to be grateful for.

“It changed my life in the fact that like I didn’t realize how grateful and blessed to be where I am,” Black said.

What could have been

In October 2011 Black was working on her homework when her mom called her and her brother, Christian, into their parents’ bedroom. As soon as she saw her dad sitting in the chair, not looking them in the eye, she knew something was wrong. Then her mom said the words she never thought she would hear.

“Your dad has been diagnosed with stage 4 bladder cancer,” she said. “He has to do chemotherapy and will potentially have surgery.”

Sitting in disbelief and confusion, Black tried to understand what this meant for her dad and family. At 12-years-old, she was not familiar with cancer. All she knew was her dad was strong and it would all be OK.

Most of the time she kept that hope, but as her dad started chemotherapy and went through intense surgery, there were moments of uncertainty.

“It just really took a toll on our family, and our house almost got foreclosed on twice,” Black said. “Seeing him so fragile and not the dad I’m used to seeing was really hard for me.”

Even though the cancer made him pale and weak, her dad fought hard for a year and came out victorious on the other side. Today, he is in remission.

But it was Black’s experience of almost losing him, her house and her secure future that made her realize how fortunate she is to have all those things now.

“If he didn’t recover and had potentially passed away, I probably wouldn’t be here,” Black said. “It was just humbling [to realize]. Now I want to do everything I can to give back.”

Being so close to the same situation as the kids she worked with on the ASB trip gave Black a new perspective. She realized that in spite of the adversity faced by her family, her parents have always been there for her. Now, she wants to be there in the same way for the kids who do not have that same support.

“I need to be giving back,” Black said. I need to be telling these kids that they can make something out of themselves and that where you start doesn’t have to be where you end up.”

Her passion to encourage and empower the elementary school kids didn’t go unnoticed by other members of her group, either. Biology student Travis Kettle, who served alongside Black, said her story of perseverance and her perspective on life didn’t just impact the children, it impacted everyone in the room.

“She befriended every single person and always lit up the room with her presence,” Kettle said. “I loved seeing her work with the kids on the trip and watch her ignite happiness in their souls.”

A new family

After a full day of playing with kids and serving at Our House, Black and the rest of her ASB team sat around tables eagerly eating their first dinner together. As they finished their meals, the group started talking about the highs and lows of their first day on the trip.

While the team listened and laughed along with each story about the day, it became clear to Black that this was a unique group of people who were passionate about the same things as her.

“I felt like I was meant to be on this trip and meant to meet these people,” Black said. “I’ve fostered really good relationships.”

Even though the trip was only a week long, Sam Ross, the 21-year-old lead site leader, said the bonds formed during it live on past the groups’ returns home.

“It’s so hard to tell people why to go on an ASB trip,” Ross said. “It’s just a life-changing experience, not just for the whole volunteer part but also the friends you make. You literally become a family. That’s one of the best parts of the trip.”

For Black, going on the ASB trip not only confirmed her passion for helping homeless children but also confirmed that being a part of this community was where she belonged.

Originally, UNT was not Black’s first choice, but after realizing her purpose and meeting so many great people on the trip it made her more than happy with her decision to come here.

“There are people here that I would’ve never in a million years thought I’d be friends with,” Black said. “The sole fact that it happened so early at a school that I didn’t want to come to just solidifies the fact that I’m supposed to be here.”

Now that she is back on campus, Black wants to take the things she learned on the trip to the streets of Denton.

“I want to volunteer more in Denton county,” Black said. “Just to be able to apply what I learned there and bring it back here is something that I’d love to do.”

As she looks back, it becomes more clear to Black every moment she has had throughout her life has lead her to go on the ASB trip. And now, it’s the experiences she had on the trip that have made her grateful for the opportunities she has now, the people she gets to help and the new family she has gained.

“[Volunteering is] a satisfaction that most people can’t even express in words, it’s solely a real good feeling,” Black said. “I’m just grateful for the experiences I’ve been through and I thank God everyday for where I’m at.”

Featured Image: Cierra Black, center, served with the rest of her Alternative Service Break team at Our House, an organization that helps homeless and near-homeless youth. Courtesy Cierra Black

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Rachel Linch

Rachel Linch

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