Perspectives on change in Habitat and Spring

About a fifth of Uni High’s student body attends Habitat for Humanity club (Habitat) on Fridays. A slightly smaller number of students go to Spring Initiative club (Spring) at Uni High on Tuesdays. They both support organizations 475 miles away. The driving forces for students and leaders seem to be Clarksdale, Bill Sutton, friends, college.


“A lot of times these things do become sort of dependent on a person or a personality. And as I think about transitioning out of this whole process, one of my big concerns is that something will happen to the whole process,” said Sutton.


Habitat was started in 1992, by Uni students. It supports a part of a national originally Christian philanthropic program in Clarksdale, Mississippi, that helps fund building homes for people who do not have the resources or financial support to be able to build one themselves. The Habitat program in Clarksdale was founded decades earlier.


The current club leaders at Uni are Marshall Yeagle-Allston, Grace Taylor, Annemarie Michael, Callie Bruce, Isaac Freund and Jack Zeiders. They are teacher-sponsored by Sutton and two other history teachers, Janet Morford and Ben Leff. A annual trip to Clarksdale in Coahoma county, Mississippi is traditionally held with 18-20 Uni students during Agora days. This year 19 students, not counting WILL interns are going on the trip.  


Spring club started recently, in 2014. Junior James Vaughen, already a member of Habitat, took up the initiative. This club is closely tied with Habitat; they are both supporting organizations in Clarksdale. Spring Initiative’s focus is education rather than building homes. The current club leaders at Uni are James Vaughen, Anna Ding and Callie Bruce. Spring is teacher-sponsored by Sutton.


“Both of them are really cool,” said John Walkington, who does not go to Habitat or Spring.


Taylor said that she originally joined the club as a sub-freshman because her now co-leader Michael’s sister was a leader in the club.


“And then I always thought it was really cool,” said Taylor. “We did a lot of important stuff in the club and we were actually doing something whereas some clubs, there’s not as much drive to get things done and so it’s not as productive.”


The drive can be different for students.


“It is a really popular club so I think a lot of kids kind of .. subconscious peer-pressure thing. However, “a lot of people are going so maybe it’s a good thing,” said Taylor.


Juniors and seniors are generally aware of Habitat and Spring, and a large portion of both Habitat and Spring are made of upperclassmen students. Subfreshmen, on the other hand, seem to be relatively unaware.


“I don’t know anyone who goes [to Habitat],” said Martin Aldunate subfreshman. “In Social Studies they talk about it [Habitat] in the beginning a little…I don’t know what Spring Initiative is.”


“Not a lot of people have joined at the moment I think,” said subfreshman Christina Wu.


Both subfreshmen said that they are busy with schoolwork and that has played a factor into them not going to the two clubs.


Junior Ally Sussman, who is not part of Habitat or Spring says that the student body perspective seems to be that it is something you do with your friends and keep going with them.


“It seems interesting and it’s a good cause,” said Sussman, about Spring.


Sutton, also the original teacher-sponsor for Habitat said that “in some senses as long as people come and pay attention and contribute, I’m not going to check people’s motivations before I let them unload the garage sale stuff.”


However, Sutton also said that “I hear, though I try to discourage this, I hear that some kids come because it makes a good line on their resume. And I just find that whole approach just kind of odious.”


“I would imagine that people think it’s really good to put on college applications and stuff,” said John Walkington.


Though Habitat and Spring, especially Habitat, are sometimes known as college application pop-up words, other motivations seem to mingle around Sutton’s stories and charisma as well as friends going to the club.


In 1992, Sutton, who was a first-year teacher at the time, had just came back from two Habitat trips with his church down to Clarksdale. When the kids asked him what he did over winter break, he told them about his trip. This must have sparked something inside of them because a club was started, with student initiative and Sutton’s support.


“It was the Uni kids who went to the administration and said we want to do this for Agora days,” said Sutton.


What inspired the kids to start up the club were Sutton’s experiences.


“It was the craziest thing in the world. First spring break of a first-year teaching job with three kids … a four year old, a seven year old, and ten-year-old with a disability and we’re gonna go.” said Sutton.


Habitat for Humanity and Spring Initiative are successful organizations that help communities in Mississippi. Students meet once a week at Uni for the club counterparts of these organizations to talk about fundraisers and to sign up to help for events. Students know that Clarksdale is one of the poorest places in the United States, and this is a driving factor for helping out Clarksdale.


Is there a local angle?


“We have a lot of injustice here in Champaign-Urbana but it’s hard to get a handle on it. Where did it start? How has it been perpetuated? What do you do to stop it?” said Sutton. He is also busy with Habitat and Spring club and has 20 years of relationships in Mississippi.


Taylor says that “the need in Clarksdale is so much bigger.” Taylor also says that, “I haven’t been to Mississippi yet and I don’t quite understand what it’s all about. But just because you don’t understand the impact you are making doesn’t mean you are not making an impact.”


“It would be nice to be doing more local stuff … but in Mississippi Delta it is an extreme amount of poverty,” said James Vaughen.


For Sutton, it is about more than who is in more need, as it seems to be for the student leaders. “I have these personal connections in Clarksdale that matter to me now that I don’t have with people in Champaign-Urbana. By continuing to go to Clarksdale I can introduce kids directly into those personal relationships that if we did stuff here, would still be good it would be great stuff to do,” said Sutton.


“There are people in this community, including a lot of U of I students on the campus, who support local Habitat chapters,” said Janet Morford. “They [Habitat and Spring contributions from Uni] mean so much on that end because there’s not a lot of support locally.”


“I think part of it also there’s definitely a human connection that I think is very hard to untangle and explain concisely,” said Morford in reference to Sutton and others from “across the country” who go down to help in Mississippi because of the “rich and complex history of the delta”. Morford hits on what Sutton himself says: Sutton’s connections with Clarksdale make the entire club’s efforts more personal to people within it.


With so many attendees, the legacy of Habitat is apparent. Many people choose to follow in the paths of those before, as opposed to starting something local. Students seem to have relationships with Sutton who in turn brings them to relationships with people in Clarksdale. As Sutton comes to end of his tenure at Uni, leaders and members may see change in the clubs. Morford, who will as of now continue to be a Habitat sponsor, says that she will let students decide how to proceed with club decisions in the next few years.