Students working the fields in Yakima

"Yakima inspired new thinking, encouraged new conversation and stirred a new sense of curiosity."

Chantal Arevalo
Secondary education Class of 2018

On the Yakima Service Immersion trip, Saint Martin’s students plant more than just seeds: they start to grow a connection with the migrant farm worker community and the call for social justice.

Each year, John Hopkins, Susan Leyster and Jon Dwyer, from the Offices of Service and Diversity Initiatives and Campus Ministry, lead a group of Saint Martin’s students to Yakima, Washington for a 3-5 day service immersion trip. The number of students fluctuates each year, ranging from 8-12. Some are returning students, others are first-years. All have given up their spring breaks.

The trip begins with a one-day workshop about Catholic social teaching and the issues faced by migrant farm workers, such as low wages, long hours and a language barrier. The workshop also asks students to consider and practice key Benedictine values, including listening, respect for persons, and justice. Although the trip starts with readings and discussion, it quickly takes students beyond the classroom. “It’s not just learning about these issues from a book,” explains John Hopkins. “We take a group of students to a location where they grapple, wrestle and engage with issues of social justice.”

The Yakima trip is rooted in the philosophy of service immersion. Service immersion describes a partnership between communities. Rather than drawing a dividing line between those who serve and those who are served, service immersion calls for mutual giving and receiving. In other words, it’s not just about planting trees or building houses—it’s about building relationships.

During the trip, the Saint Martin’s team partners with Catholic Charities Housing Services (CCHS), a nonprofit that helps migrant farm workers find livable, affordable community housing. Saint Martin’s students help with ESL classes for the adult workers and their children. Many in the migrant farm worker community speak Spanish and do not speak English well, which puts them even more at risk for deportation and separation of their families.

Saint Martin’s students experience a cultural immersion in Yakima, if only for a short time. They visit nearby Heritage University and hear the stories of undocumented students who have to fight for their education. They hear testimonies from migrant farm workers. They also visit the Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC), where volunteers live in humble conditions and are driven by a sense of mission and justice.

“It’s so easy to judge, but when you really sit down and listen, you learn the most,” says Jeneva Burton ’15. “I met so many phenomenal individuals. From parents who are slaving over the fields so they can have enough food at home to children whose biggest dream is to attend college.”

One of the definitive experiences of the trip is working in the fields with the migrant farm workers themselves. For Chantal Arevalo ’18, the afternoon spent working in the field was powerful and eye-opening. “It was one of the hottest days,” she recalls. “We had no water. We were working without gloves, so we got blisters in between our fingers.” Burton, who was in the same group, remembers, “I had a conversation with a man who works by himself on a farm. The farm was huge and he worked long, hard days with no help.”

The students return from the Yakima trip awakened, disturbed and on fire. “Yakima inspired new thinking, encouraged new conversation and stirred a new sense of curiosity,” says Arevalo. “The problems that we became aware of in Yakima seemed completely different than the problems we see in [our] Portland [service immersion trip]. Serving someone coffee in a hospitality room on a wet Friday in October feels a lot different than raking uphill on a farm for three hours while the intense heat hovers over your neck. Although these problems initially seemed different, their roots are the same. They were planted, watered and fertilized with the hands of injustice, greed and ignorance.”

“The trip to Yakima made me frustrated,” says Morgan Olson ’18. “Frustrated that these immigrants are working so hard to become citizens and doing everything right and somehow they still can't.”

“It definitely fueled my fire to do something to help with the immigration issues we have here,” says Ben Lopez ’15. “I heard a lot about it in the news from politicians. It’s different hearing it in person.”

Each year, Hopkins watches a similar narrative unfold: Saint Martin’s students returning from Yakima with a desire to learn more and to take action. After witnessing the Jesuit Volunteer Corps working for change in Yakima, Crystal Cardona ’14 was inspired to join the JVC in Phoenix, AZ, where she spent a year assisting people experiencing homelessness with the job search. After hearing the testimonies of migrant farm workers, Morgan Olson deepened her passion for social justice and decided to pursue Social Work. Still other students, such as Alyssa Melder ‘16, have returned on the Yakima trip to learn more about the migrant farm worker experience.

The Yakima Service Immersion trip is a call to action. It’s a call to challenge and confront systemic injustice in our local Washington communities and beyond. After learning about the migrant farm worker community and their stories, Saint Martin’s students cannot return to ignorance and complacency. “In American culture, we’re numb,” reflects Hopkins. “We chase the American dream and we sleepwalk. The Yakima trip is about waking up. It’s impossible to unlearn what you have now learned. There is the choice to act on it.”

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