Rachel Dryden invests herself in a new kind of spring break

20 Aug

Rachel Dryden sank into the hard airplane seat, already resenting the trip. Her friends were taking a much-needed break from school and work – but Dryden was on her way to Jacksonville, Florida to spend her fall break volunteering. All she wanted was to be back in her comfy dorm room in Parkville, Missouri, snuggling with her boyfriend and watching VH1. She had no idea that the trip would change her entire perspective on life.

It’s not like she even needed to go, she reasoned with herself. She grew up below the poverty line – why can’t someone else give back to the community? What did the community ever do for her? The first-generation freshman had already gone farther than anyone in her family before her. She deserved a rest right about now, right?

Dryden, a hyperactive girl with shiny brown hair, watched Kansas City slipping away through the plane window. The Midwestern city had always been her home, for all of her nineteen years. She felt the homesickness weighing down her stomach like a boulder. Dryden thought of the ladybug stuffed animal her boyfriend gave her, and wished it had fit in her carry-on. She wanted to nuzzle her face into the warm red fuzz and forget all about this trip.

Finally, Dryden and the service group arrived at the church hosting them in Florida. The service leader gave them free rein to enjoy their first night in Jacksonville. Dryden headed to the beach to lie in the sun, splash in the water, play in the sand — to experience fall break like any other college coed. At the end of the night, she settled into her mattress on the church gymnasium floor and wrote in her journal.

“Things became really exciting when I discovered we were not going to do any actual service today; the events of the day were up to us to fabricate!  So, we all agreed to take a trip to the beach! I had an amazing time, although I collected about three pounds of sand in my bathing suit by the time we got back to the church.”


After a few hours of sleep, Dryden woke up to go to a homeless shelter and serve breakfast. It was a very different fall break than her beach adventures last night.

“When I think of serving breakfast, I picture standing in a line, dishing out food to the homeless,” Dryden says, her bright blue eyes open wide. “Kind of like how I was served meals at school as a kid. I thought it would be a huge room with tables everywhere and swarms of people in raggedy clothing.”

In reality, the shelter was small and cozy, and no one was in rags. She never would have known they were needy, she said. It was actually much like her own childhood – the men looked like normal people, even if poor.

The shelter served breakfast restaurant-style, so Dryden became a waitress for the morning. She rushed around the cafeteria, loaded down with trays of steaming food, her eyes searching for the pink tickets printed ‘FOOD’ waving in the air.

Mostly, she served older men. Some were disabled. Some were able bodied. Some were black, and some white. Each waited patiently for the Missourian teenager to bring them a hotdog and some cranberry juice.

“These guys were just waiting for something to eat,” says Dryden. “Anything.”

She brought out tray after tray, until the morning became a blur of pink tickets, a cacophony of shouts, and an anonymous sea of faces. As she set a plain bagel down, she thought of her dad. Any of these men could be him. Her biological father cannot work, Dryden explained, because of his various ailments.

She recalls visiting him in St Louis, opening his cupboard and seeing a single box of saltine crackers for food. Though that would hardly be considered a meal for many, Dryden thinks his pride prevents him from seeking help.

As she looked into the face of the man with the bagel, she imagined her father sitting here, hoping for something to dampen that crippling hunger for just a couple more hours.

Later, she wrote in her journal about the morning. “My parents got a divorce when I was eight-years-old, and from that point on, I did not see my father much. There are memories of him, though, that I can remember as if it happened yesterday. I remember shortly after the divorce, my dad was screaming at my mom at the bottom of the stairs. I did not really understand what was going on, but I knew whatever it was, it was making my mother cry. So in my mother’s defense, as he was about to leave, I yelled “I hate you!” at the top of my lungs. He glared at me and then slapped me across the face. It still hurts me to think he would do that to me. …I hope tomorrow will be a less emotional day.”


Dryden walked with her community service group to a nursing home. The group leader explained they would be serving lunch and helping to clean up. Dryden imagined another day of being a waitress and perhaps picking up litter or landscaping.

They walked into the building, greeted by the sweet stench of death. A small placard at the front desk instructed residents to sign up for “Help from Missouri College students”. Dryden was sent to room 915, per the signup sheet.

“I just turned 93 a few weeks ago,” the resident, whom Rachel called Mrs. Virginia, said. “Can you help me find my green sweater?”

Mrs. Virginia instructed Dryden to take every garment from the closet and lay them out on the bed for Mrs. Virginia to look through. After each piece was inspected, Dryden carefully hung each one back in the closet. Every so often, Mrs. Virginia insisted that Dryden rest a few minutes. She didn’t want Dryden to be worn out, she said. Dryden looked everywhere for the green sweater. Under the bed, in the bathroom, the closet floor. The sweater was simply gone.

Mrs. Virginia mentioned that she had bought a vacuum cleaner that she had never used, because she had injured her wrist shortly after purchasing. She didn’t like the area under her bed to be dusty, she explained, and that’s why she got the vacuum.

“I looked up to this woman,” says Dryden. “At her age, most people would be grumpy and want everyone to do things for them; but not Mrs. Virginia.  Even at 93-years-old, she still wanted to take care of her living space and vacuum underneath her bed.”

When Dryden offered to vacuum for Mrs. Virginia, she replied, “Oh, that would be wonderful!”

Dryden vacuumed, dusted, and did other simple chores around Mrs. Virginia’s room. When she was done, Mrs. Virginia reached for her wallet. She fumbled and shakily brought out a ten-dollar bill.

“Now, will this be enough for you?” asked Mrs. Virginia.

Dryden refused the money.

“No, I would really appreciate it if you would take this money.  You did such a good job and should be rewarded,” insisted Mrs. Virginia.

“No, really,” said Dryden. “Helping you out is rewarding enough.”

“I don’t understand why you would wanna just come all the way down to Jacksonville and help some poor old woman, but thank you,” said Mrs. Virginia.  “Thank you for helping me.”

As a compromise, Dryden agreed to take a photo with Mrs. Virginia. Dryden then said goodbye to “one of the most amazing people I have ever met”.

The service group’s next task was to serve lunch to the retirement home residents. She wrote in her journal about the experience:

“Lunch was not what I thought it was going to be either.  I, yet again, thought we would each be serving the food to the elderly at lunch time.  But, when we got there, we were each given a hair net and gloves and instructed to bus dishes and help carry trays to the table.  Instead of delivering the trays of food to the residents sitting at tables, we walked next to them, assisting them by putting their food and drinks on each of their trays.  We then sat them down, took their food off the tray, and put the trays on a rack to be washed.”

Dryden walked with all sorts of residents. Some were nice and curious about the group. Some were loud. Some were quiet. A few were cranky. As she walked with one of the residents, Dryden saw her grandmother out of the corner of her eye.

On a second glance, she realized it was not Grandma Dryden. This woman had the same facial features – the same face shape, the same curved brow bone and slanted nose, and the same whitish-gray hair – but it was not her. Grandma Dryden is unfortunately deceased, so it couldn’t be her.

Dryden thought of the holidays she had spent with her grandmother, and how wonderful each one had been. Dryden thought of Grandma Dryden’s desserts, and how fun it was to cook Thanksgiving dinner with her. She missed those days.

“I came on this trip with the mind-set that I would come down from my pedestal to help out less fortunate people.  But, I was so wrong.  Some of these people’s lives and appearances, since I have been reminded of both my father and grandmother now, parallel my life and have taught me more about myself.  I am so thankful for this experience.”


Day three of the service trip, and Dryden’s fall break in Jacksonville was not what she had expected. She had imagined mornings of volunteering and evenings on the beach. She thought about this as she pulled on yard work clothes and climbed into the stuffy group van to do some outdoors work. They drove through pouring rain and pulled up in front of a grey house in a subdivision. It was a drab house on a drab day, filled with drab rooms. Dryden would soon learn that it was a group home for mentally handicapped men – men who were anything but drab.

Dryden and a few of her trip-mates were assigned to “brighten up” 20-year-old Matt’s bedroom. The room was currently paneled with wood and had one sea-foam green accent wall. The group grabbed a couple cans of white paint and went to work painting over the green and some of the paneling. Dryden helped rearrange the furniture, and when the painting was done, she did some touchups in the living room. The group stood back proudly and looked at their nearly mess-less handiwork.

Dryden was exhausted, but she and the group decided to stay for a little bit and see Matt’s reaction to his newly painted room. When he got home from school, he ran up to his bedroom to see the difference. He walked into the now-bright room, and his eyes widened with excitement. He scampered around the room and pointed at the walls.

He pointed to his chin and made a signal to say “thank you”. He has a disability that impairs his ability to speak, Dryden explained, and can only use sign language to communicate.

“Until this point, I had never really been around people with disabilities.  It was really eye opening to see how little these people can do for themselves; I also realized how hard it is on their parents.  Despite their problems, they crave independence just like any other human being.  They love to try and do things by themselves.  For example, me receiving my acceptance letter from Park University is equivalent to them accomplishing a simple task such as brushing their teeth or feeding themselves.  They can also be funny, and they definitely always kept me smiling.  This day was different than any day I have ever experienced.  It taught me a stronger sense of patience, through love.”


Dryden and the rest of the group headed to a clothing closet in the basement of a church, to sort through clothes and give clothes to the needy. Each person who came into the church filled out a worksheet with their size and their needs. Then a volunteer would head into the back room to get some clothes.

Dryden remembers one family in particular. A woman and her husband brought in seven children under the age of 14, and needed clothes for each one. Dryden took the toddler’s order sheet and dug deep into the bins to find the best clothes for him to wear. It was probably the only clothes he’d get for a while, so they needed to be the best.

When the students handed the family a bag of clothes for each child, the middle-aged mother began to cry. “Thank you so much,” she said.

“Sometimes, we could not find a person’s size, especially if the person was very big or very small,” says Dryden somberly, a stark difference from her normal overabundance of energy. “It was really disappointing to me when we could not completely fulfill someone’s order; I knew since I could not give them the clothes they needed, they would simply do without.”

One man only wanted a pair of shoes.  Dryden just found a singular pair in his size. They were a little rugged, but they were in much better shape than the pair he had on. He smiled a toothless smile.

“Next to feeding people who are hungry, I think putting clothes on a person’s back is the best thing you can do,” says Dryden.

Next, the group headed back to the soup kitchen where they had started the week. Instead of waitressing and bussing tables, Dryden cleaned trays. The people on this Wednesday afternoon were a lot different from the breakfast earlier in the week. Dryden noticed women and children, most of whom carried Bibles.

“It really made me think, wow, people who are literally struggling everyday just to eat still praise God,” says Dryden.  “Most people, once things started going wrong, would immediately blame God.”

Later, as she lay back on the church gymnasium floor, she wrote in her journal: Tomorrow we leave Jacksonville behind us with a variety of experiences, new knowledge, and unforgettable memories.  I have had a lot of fun here in Florida, but I will be happy to be home!”


On the plane back to Kansas City, Dryden sank into another hard airplane seat, but this time it was more liberation than torture. Her exhausted body was grateful for the relief from working. She chatted with her trip-mates about their experiences.

“We feel like family now,” one remarked.

And as much as that was true, she couldn’t wait to see her real family, her boyfriend, and her ladybug plush.


After being back in Kansas City, Missouri for 24 hours, Dryden was ready to face a demon that came up for her in the beginning of the trip. She called her dad and made one last entry in her journal.

“I have decided to be the bigger person and contact my father.  Although, once I called, he explained he could not talk long because he had very few minutes left on his phone.  So, I just told him I missed him and loved him; he said the same, although I question if he really meant it.  I also decided to contact a preacher, who lives in the same neighborhood as my father, and asked him to go visit my dad, who has fallen into a deep depression.  I am really sensitive about this issue, but going on this trip and bringing this conflict to the forefront of my consciousness, really helped me to be a better person.”

Back at college, Dryden fell back into the steady rhythm of classes, work, friends. But though it was the same routine as before, Dryden says she will never be the same after her trip.

Published in The Narva Magazine, 2010


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