Duke sophomore Nick Martin said when he held office hours with Durham’s homeless this summer and spent hours helping them with their job applications or filing for food stamps, he learned that he wasn’t as introverted as he thought.
Martin said he found happiness through helping complete strangers. Everyone he met had a story about overcoming personal demons.
For Duke sophomore Ezgi Ustundag, volunteering at Durham, England’s Waddington Street Centre immersed her in a world of the mentally ill. Over just one month, she became more open and sensitive as she helped arrange art classes and met a kind “rock and roller” man with schizophrenia.
About 15 Duke students spent six weeks in Durham, N.C., and then flew to Durham, England, this summer to volunteer with different nonprofits. They had the chance to compare and contrast community economic development efforts within the sister cities, and where one once prospered in tobacco, the other was still recovering from the closing of coal mines.
The crumbling brick warehouses and Lucky Strike tower of North Carolina’s Durham speaks to a different time, when the discovery of Brightleaf tobacco in the area eventually led to the creation of American Tobacco, Liggett & Myers, R.J. Reynolds, and P. Lorillard.
But in England’s Durham, workers that used to extract coal from shallow seams were put out of work when unprofitable pits were closed.
More than two decades later, among its cobblestone streets and Gothic architecture, Durham still faces high unemployment and substance abuse rates, Ustundag and Martin said.
“It’s kind of similar to what Durham may have looked like after the tobacco companies left,” Ustundag said. “It’s a blue-collar town, but it doesn’t have the jobs anymore.”
The sister cities swap was a DukeEngage program, which organizes student opportunities for international service immersion, and also was led by the Duke Community Service Center and Durham and Regional Affairs.
The students lived on the campus of Durham University, England’s third oldest university. Overseas and at home, they volunteered at youth centers, in workforce re-entry programs and with re-training and rehabilitation services. They also participated in social services outreach.
Martin said among England’s rolling hills and farmland, he volunteered at a youth center, where he organized arts and crafts for smaller kids and played soccer with the older ones. He had to field frequent questions and perceptions of the United States: What do Americans eat? We know Disney World’s in Florida! What’s the weather like? What kind of house do you live in?
In North Carolina, Martin worked with the Community Empowerment Fund, where he helped Durham’s homeless write cover letters, sign up for bank accounts and move into new housing. He talked for hours with one of the homeless clients about hip-hop music, rather than focus on the man’s past alcoholism and drug addictions.
“If you just looked at him, you wouldn’t have guessed something like that,” Martin said. “A lot of these guys had rap sheets and criminal backgrounds, and none of them were particularly afraid to talk about that or were uncomfortable. They were very comfortable in their own skin and accepting of the mistakes they’ve made.”
He said seeing another side to Durham opened his eyes and that the “pigeon-holed” view of “Dirty Durham” was more than just criminal arrests and drug deals. There are people trying to make a difference.
“You’ve seen this person start from the bottom and now they’ve just brought themselves up, and you’ve sort of been there just as a helping hand,” he said.
Ustundag worked at Self-Help Credit Union downtown during her North Carolina stay. She helped with social media and search engine optimization, and she heard stories about Self-Help lending a hand to people who had nowhere else to turn.
“(I heard) stories of people who were kind of abandoned by all conventional financial institutions, and Self-Help was willing to take the chance on them,” Ustundag said. “Now they’re small business owners or home owners. They really have a shot now and the community’s better for it.”
In England, she volunteered with Waddington Street Centre and helped the staff bring health training classes and arts programs, ranging from badminton to mural painting, to the patients. She said the people she met going through treatments for mental health issues were all supportive and nonjudgmental of each other.
An older man who wore loud shirts and funny hats, she said, listened to old records with her one day. He said one of the songs reminded him of when he was first diagnosed with schizophrenia.
Now that Ustundag’s back to start her fall semester at Duke, she said she plans to evaluate the mental health services on Duke campus as well as organize activities for World Mental Health Day on Oct. 10.
“Be really grateful that you’re healthy, and you see how much they appreciate what they have,” she said of the people she met in England. “...It feels like once I’m back on campus and I can apply what I’ve learned, it will feel like I’ve had closure.”