Student-led spring conference to address local poverty

Sophomore Indie Coombs paints a front-porch during Facade Squad, a recent service project led by the Mercer Service Scholars. SPECIAL PHOTO.

Sophomore Indie Coombs paints a front-porch during Facade Squad, a recent service project led by the Mercer Service Scholars. SPECIAL PHOTO.

Sophomore Indie Coombs paints a front-porch during Facade Squad, a recent service project led by the Mercer Service Scholars. SPECIAL PHOTO.

A Mercer service learning organization recently announced plans to host a spring conference to tackle the issue of local poverty.

The Local Engagement Against Poverty conference will take place March 17 as a way to bring Macon’s inequality to the forefront of student attention and kick off a university-wide initiative to log 10,000 hours of community service.

The LEAP conference is being hosted by the Mercer Service Scholars, a group of students specially selected by the university to focus on service learning.

Last year. Forbes Magazine listed Macon as the seventh most poverty-stricken metro area in the United States, with an estimated 29.8 percent of its population living under the poverty line. Additionally, 8.9 percent of that statistic lives on about $21.50 per day for all of their necessities.

In reaction to that statistic as well as their firsthand experience, the Service Scholars decided to host the conference and commit to 10,000 hours of service as part of the Clinton Global Initiative University. The event is hosted each year by President Bill Clinton as a forum for students to discuss strategies for solving problems in their communities and the world.

Since then, the Service Scholars have joined together with a committee of other students and faculty members to make the LEAP Conference happen.

Continuing in the same vein as the STOP Conference and the Caring for Creation Conference, which both took place in 2009, the LEAP Conference will focus on an often overlooked local problem.

The conference will feature speakers and events for students to attend, including a play based on Barbara Ehrenreich’s book Nickel and Dimed. Keynote speaker David Gushee of Mercer’s Christianity department will address the relationship between poverty and religion.

Junior Chelsea Flieger, who has helped organize the LEAP conference since its conception, said she thinks the local focus of the conference is what makes it unique.

“Everyone knows about extreme global poverty, but we often neglect our own neighbors. Poverty in Macon is a very real issue that needs to be dealt with, not brushed under the rug. LEAP has the ability to change the lives of students and Macon residents if we can work together,” Flieger said.

Junior Phillip York said he hopes the conference will help abolish some of the myths and stigmas surrounding the issues of poverty and homelessness.

“There are a lot of myths and assumptions that are often espoused, for example, about how the poor are lazy or how they choose to be poor, when the reality is in fact very different. The vast majority of people in poverty are working poor who are fighting to make ends meet, people who are constantly on the edge of crisis, and community partnerships often play a role in offering a hand up.”

Additionally, York is working with Dr. Craig McMahan to create a poverty simulation “for students to experience a (very) small taste of how difficult it is to get by on low-income levels.”

The weeklong conference will culminate in a service day in which the entire student body is encouraged to participate. The service day, March 26, is also the goal for the 10,000 hours of service to be logged.

York said those working on the conference hope to see a significant stride toward meeting the 10,000 hour goal by March 26, but that the initiative will continue for the rest of the semester.

“So far we have logged about 1,500 hours,” Flieger said.

The service projects will take place throughout the Macon community and parter with a number of local outreach organizations, including Habitat for Humanity, Rebuilding Macon and Facade Squad.

GET INVOLED:

For more information about LEAP, or to sign up for the conference, visit www.mercer.edu/leap. Students can also email [email protected] to volunteer for service projects.