Local college student Leslie Watts’ recent trip to New York City included the usual must-see locations — such as the Empire State Building and Times Square — but also a grimmer side of the Big Apple.
Along with the sightseeing, and meeting actress Drew Barrymore, a service project was an important part of the visit by Watts, an Ararat resident, and 15 fellow students of Gardner-Webb University who traveled to New York on their fall break. They were led by staff members from the GWU Division of Student Development.
Billed as “Big Service in the Big Apple,” the trip incorporated visits to landmarks as well as volunteerism by GWU students. This included spending a day at the Bowery Mission serving meals for the homeless, and helping to manage a 5K run in a New York park where the group met Barrymore.
“My favorite part of the service project was definitely getting to work at the Bowery Mission,” Watts, the daughter of Mark and Lisa Watts, commented after returning from New York.
Established in 1879, the organization that aids the homeless of New York is the oldest homeless/transitional ministry in the country.
“When you volunteer at a place like the Bowery it makes you realize how blessed you really are and how much you take for granted each day,” Watts explained.
“The people I saw in this program were just down on their luck and needed a hand up — it makes you realize that it could be you one day in that same position. No one is invulnerable.”
In addition to serving meals for the homeless, the visiting students organized the pantry, unloaded food trucks and worked in a clothes closet.
A rehabilitation component of the Bowery Mission “helps people get cleaned up, then they give them jobs,” according to Watts, who plans to graduate from Gardner-Webb in May with a B.S. degree in accounting.
“They also feed the community twice a day and give out food to the people who really need it,” she reported. “I believe this mission is a blessing and I highly recommend that anyone who can should help people in need.”
Watts was left with an overriding conclusion after her work in the Bowery: “I believe it is important to give back to the community, because you never know when you might need a hand.”
The local student was home-schooled from second grade until she graduated from high school. Watts was also part of the Foothills Area Christian Home Educators home school group.
She hopes to one day work at a CPA firm as a tax accountant or auditor, and at last report was seeking internships in the accounting field.
Encountering the member of America’s First Family of Acting was another highlight of the New York City excursion for the Gardner-Webb University group, which also included a public service component.
The students from North Carolina met Barrymore while assisting the West Side YMCA with its Fit for All 5K in Riverside Park. They worked as race marshals, manned water stations and a play area and helped with event tear-down.
“The trip to New York was a whirlwind of adventure,” the student from Ararat summed-up afterward.
“When you grow up as a small-town girl, a big city like New York City can be a little overwhelming. I definitely wanted to see as much of it as I possibly could.”
During their time off from service work, Watts and friend Tori Collie traveled all over the city.
“My favorite activity outside of the service project was going to see a Broadway show,” Watts revealed. “Theater has always been a big part of my life.”
Among the places visited by the group as a whole were the Empire State Building, the 9/11 Museum and Memorial, Times Square, Central Park, the Statue of Liberty and Rockefeller Center.
Yet the fun was mixed with concern for one’s fellow man.
“The students were able to see different ways in which they can serve,” said Brian Arnold, director of student activities, campus recreation and new student orientation at Gardner-Webb University.
“We were able to take time to put the needs of others before ourselves.”
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.