This blog post was written by Amizade volunteer Michelle Carfagno, an undergraduate student at Cornell University, and presents impressions of her service-learning journey in Pittsburgh, PA. Thanks, Michelle!

Amizade participants engaging in activities at a community garden in Braddock, PA alongside Grow Pittsburgh.

It has now been two weeks since my service-learning trip with Amizade in Pittsburgh. Three weeks ago, when I left Ithaca, NY with two other Cornellians, I had no idea how much this trip with Amizade would impact me.
First of all, Amizade did such an amazing job in providing our group with a variety of volunteer experiences while in Pittsburgh. Some of our service experiences included helping out in a community garden to provide the community with fresh produce and canvassing to spread awareness about food stamp usage at the Farmers Market. However, my favorite service experience was working at the food bank. It was nice to see how many different people, disabled people, retired people, working adults, and students, could come together to pack boxes for elderly people who can’t make it out of their houses to go to the supermarket. This experience truly opened my eyes to how many different ways food insecurity comes about in an area besides a lack of proximity to supermarkets. It also reminded me that volunteering to make your community a better place does not need to be a big to-do. I got to talk to some really cool people while I packed canned fruit into boxes, and before I knew it, we had already packed 1,500 boxes. It is amazing what people can do in such a short amount of time when they take just a couple hours out of their day to volunteer. When I go back to Cornell this semester, I am going to make sure to always make time in my schedule to give back to the community I consider home.

Mrs. Terri Baltimore of the Hill House Association leading participants on a tour around the historic Hill District of Pittsburgh.

Besides service experiences, Amizade provided us with historical learning experiences as well to learn more about Pittsburgh and the areas we were serving. By far, the most impactful learning experience came from the tour of the Hill District with Terri Baltimore from the Hill House Association. Before the tour started, I thought we were just going to be taking a tour of one of Pittsburgh’s many neighborhoods. However, because of Terri Baltimore, we were able to truly understand the history behind all these seemingly ordinary-looking buildings before gentrification came to the Hill District. For example, one abandoned building we looked at used to be home to Crawford Grill-a thriving jazz club in the early 1900’s that featured black artists. Terri Baltimore also led discussions that truly made us think. One of her points of discussion was “Think of one town that you have always been told never to go to” when trying to explain to us how people feel about the Hill District. She also explained to us how gentrification has caused average housing prices to skyrocket to $200,000 when the average income is only $15,000. It was after this tour that I realized that you truly cannot form an opinion about a community unless you have taken the time to learn all about its history and its people. Volunteering in a community can be so much more impactful if you take the time to really understand the struggles a specific community is facing and the history that has come along with those struggles.

Before the tour started, I thought we were just going to be taking a tour of one of Pittsburgh’s many neighborhoods. However, because of Terri Baltimore, we were able to truly understand the history behind all these seemingly ordinary-looking buildings before gentrification came to the Hill District.

I am so thankful that my first service-learning trip was with Amizade. Amizade gave me the chance to constantly reflect and learn from the reflections of my peers. I am also thankful that my first volunteer trip was right in the United States. Many people like to volunteer abroad, but I was happy to be able to make an impact on and learn about a community not too far from where I grew up. From this trip, I have been inspired to diversify my life, keep myself informed, and continue to volunteer whenever I can. I can’t wait to return to Pittsburgh in March!