According to the most recent US Census data, nearly 20 percent of people living in St. Lawrence County are beneath the poverty line. That’s one in five adults who need to rely on food stamps and other government programs to get by week to week, year to year. Surfing through websites, I found a page that ranks health in the 62 New York counties. St. Lawrence County ranks 60 out of 62. The page cites the facts that 27 percent of us smoke, 30 percent of us are obese, and 20 percent of us are excessive drinkers. One of the most disheartening parts of the list reported the percentage of children living in poverty: 23% of children in St. Lawrence County.
Some reading this may wonder why I am using the word “we” when describing the County. As students we often do not see ourselves as part of the greater community; we think for some reason (the institution may be partially to blame for this) that an invisible force field protects students from these sobering statistics. With this attitude, St. Lawrence students see these numbers and propagate a generalization that has really separated the University and the County for decades. Many students believe that town residents are drug addicts, rednecks, and impoverished. On the other end, residents think each and every one of us is filthy rich, stuck-up, and spoiled. With such generalizations separating us, we are like siblings who never speak to each other who are live under the same roof and eat the same food. If we had a mother, she would tell us it’s time to wake up and get over it.
Challenge: Get to know a local.
What is the best way to disprove a generalization? What is the best way to become comfortable in a new place with new people? The answer to both these questions lies in the building of personal relationships. Face to face, hand to hand, heart to heart, you must get to know someone before judging them. In an attempt to break through this disparaging wall we have constructed between Campus and Town, St. Lawrence operates and encourages a small handful of volunteer and service organizations. These organizations pair students with community members and give them a chance to build personal relationships.
The Campus Kitchens Project gave me a platform to find out a little more about the people I live around. Each week we prepare and serve a free meal for the community. Over steaming mashed potatoes, a few cups of coffee and some cake, it’s easy to get talking and to learn about the interesting lives of older people and residents of the North Country. I found that many people here choose to live on less money and that many are incredibly skilled in trades and in agriculture. Many are also just down on their luck. Hopefully by representing my school, I have also helped to change some people’s conception of St. Lawrence students. These interactions can go a long way in creating a healthy, tension free atmosphere in our shared village of Canton.
Why not help each other out? If both sides just give a little, then perhaps we can all find home here in our beautiful river-run valley. Students who serve learn a little more about the real world, about obstacles, about building and cooking and farming, about community, about partnerships and relationships. Community members, who take the time to teach, receive a helping hand, a friend, or perhaps a free meal. For those bio majors, it’s achieving symbiosis through service. Why not?