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Living Out My Pacific Northwest Dreams through Service

by Melissa Hoffman
2017 Most Valuable Student Scholar

My name is Melissa Hoffmann. I’m a sophomore studying Environmental Studies at Vassar College in New York. I’m involved in climate justice and environmental activism work on campus and with the community. Traveling to Portland, Oregon, with the Elks marked my first time traveling alone, and it was to a place I’ve never been with people I’ve never met. My first Elks Scholar Service Trip ended up being the best spring break I’ve ever had.

One of the reasons I was interested in the trip to Portland, aside from wanting to connect with other Elks scholars and use my energy to make a difference in the world, was the location. As an environmentalist who fully embraces my love for a good soil composition and a low-carbon lifestyle, Portland has always interested me. It is known as one of the greenest, if not the greenest, city in the U.S. for its high-quality public transportation, walkability and bikeability, access to green spaces, and sustainable design. Yet, it is one of the fastest gentrifying cities with a large homeless population and inequality that is clearly noticeable from walking the streets.

Before I knew where the Spring Elks Scholar Service Trip would be, I wrote a paper on the economic geography of Portland, looking at how the rise of tech, outdoor and green industries had contributed to the city’s problem of inequality, replacing affordable housing for long term residents with “hippie” kombucha joints, artsy food, culture, and nightlife for the young, wealthy and college-educated. While Portland is a great place to live and enjoy nature, it is also important to recognize the implications of gentrification and the hardships many residents face.

I was looking forward to this trip because I was excited to see both the beauty and pain of Portland. When I met the other Elks scholars, I immediately felt welcomed and knew that we were all committed to helping make the community we were visiting a better place for everyone by working together and supporting each other.

We could see that some of the work we did made a direct impact on the spaces of service. In Marquam Park, we removed invasive white ivy, a non-native plant that disrupts the ecosystem and threatens beneficial plants. (Apparently, some birds in Marquam Park make the sound, “chickedeedeedeedee,” which was quickly taken up as the catchphrase of one of our fellow scholars and is a sound I will likely never forget.) After hours of pulling and lopping, we make a significant impact on how that section of the park looked. However, on our drive back, we noticed hills all over Portland were covered with ivy, and it seemed like our contribution was so small. During reflection that night, we decided that any impact we make, no matter how small, is worthwhile. This is a lesson I carried with me through the rest of the week.

At p:ear in downtown Portland, we learned the value of indirect service. P:ear works with youth experiencing homelessness by connecting them to a supportive community and offering training, employment opportunities and art programs. Some of our tasks included cleaning chairs, tables and cabinets. While we were committed to our service, the work was less satisfying than other projects. Throughout the work, I reminded myself how great it was that I was able to help an incredible organization. It makes me grateful to know that, despite many of the challenges I wrote about in my research paper, there are people in Portland that care about their vulnerable and neglected communities. With this in mind, I committed myself to any task that helped in any capacity.

As I sit back at home, wondering if this service trip really happened or if I dreamt it, I am filled with the gratitude of knowing that there are other people like me that understand the importance of selflessness ands of offering our energy to support the greater good by serving the people and spaces we care about. Traveling to Portland with the Elks was a dream come true. I got to touch the soil, trees, and geology of the Pacific Northwest, contribute to a more equitable city, connect with local groups, like the church community where we stayed, the volunteer coordinator that brought us on an educational hike before service, and the Elks members that love their (huge) Lodge and community, all with an incredible group of passionate scholars.

A blog post can’t describe how meaningful this trip was for me, but it can invite you and whoever else reads this to consider how you can use your knowledge and passion to help vulnerable communities and protect the environment we live in. Perhaps you will find yourself on a future service trip, smiling at the beautiful Cedars, eating wild licorice, and finding the meaning of life in a freshly chopped mulch pile.

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