Empathy vs Sympathy

N.V. Jones Story by posted on November 15, 2012. Filed under Breaking News and Events,News and Features. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

ASB group left to right: Zed Deenik, Kodi Riebling, Phil, Jose Espenoza, Le Alexander, Beatrice Bonner, Sarah Hannifan

Last year, five students found out the real difference between being sympathetic to someone’s situation and walking in their shoes.

Students from Eastern Oregon University participated in the Alternative Spring Break (ASB) program during the 2011-2012 school year.  Normally, the students would have just volunteered in one of the homeless shelters for the weekend. Instead, these brave students decided to participate in JOIN’s immersion program. This program allowed students to experience life on the streets in Portland. For one weekend they slept in homeless shelters, struggled to find food, and took tours of homeless “hang-outs” given by Portland’s homeless.

“The Alternative Spring Break program at EOU is developed to be a springboard to community awareness and activism, while encouraging leadership to occur in different formats. The experience gave the students the ability to hone in on personal growth and development as it relates to individuals within their communities from a leadership perspective,” Le Alexander, assistant director for student involvement, said.

Zed Deenik, one of the five students led by Alexander, explained their daily routine. The students would wake before dawn to catch the MAX, Portland’s transportation system, to downtown Portland. Once there, they ate a free breakfast provided by Blanchet House.  Deenik said, “Eating a meal with homeless people gave me a whole different perspective.”

Deenik explained that his perspective of homeless people changed because he had to live as a homeless person for a weekend. He said that if he had only volunteered, he may have still felt above them and only sympathized with their plight. But, since he had to live homeless for two days, he gained empathy for the homeless.

But it didn’t stop there

The volunteers’ day didn’t end with free breakfast. A ten-year veteran of the streets gave tours of the different shelters, churches, and non-profit organizations that provide support to homeless Portland citizens. The students were also taken to “the Caves”, a series of eroded out holes under one of Portland’s many underpasses where homeless people shelter at night.

After the tour, each student was given a dollar and told to go find lunch. Deenik said that they were able to find three or four places where they could get a free square meal. “We didn’t have to spend our one dollar and this was during the weekend when a lot of the services weren’t available.”

Sarah Hannifan and Kodi Reibling were among the five students who participated in the ASB program.  Hannifan, who has since graduated from Eastern Oregon University said, “The entire ASB experience in Portland was life-changing. It made me think differently and see the world through the eyes of others.”

Hannifan acted as the Graduate Student Involvement Coordinator and helped organize the project.  She said that by helping put the project together, she was given an amazing opportunity

to give students the chance to experience another way of life and to change their way of thinking. She hopes they will use the experience to create change within their local communities.

Reibling said, “The Alternative Spring Break program was a life changing experience for me. I now see through a whole new set of eyes and have a new respect for individuals on the streets.” He said that the program showed him that his assumptions about homeless people were unjustified. He saw that homelessness could happen to anyone. People can hit rough points in their lives and have to start over with nothing.  “Now, when I see someone who is on the street asking for money, I always make time to try to strike up a conversation or make eye contact with them,” he said, “I want to let them know that they are thought about.”

Deenik said, “I gained a deeper understanding of who these people are and now I know it can happen to anybody.”  “All they are looking for is to be acknowledged as human beings,” he continued, “They would much rather have a smile and a hello than money in their cup.”

The other students who participated in the ASB were Beatrice Bonner and Jose Espinoza. Neither could be reached for comment.

To find out more about how to join the 2012-2013 ASB, contact Zed Deenik or Le Alexander at

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