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Illinois Workcamp Alumni Link Youth to Present-Day Needs

Illinois Workcamp Alumni Link Youth to Present-Day Needs

Published: August 24, 2011
Volunteer at Pembroke arranging books in library.

Bishnu, a student at Sullivan High School in Chicago, ILis arranging the books at the Pembrooke library. Visiting and helping with the library was one of the three projects that the summer institute students did during the peace here.there..everywhere summer institute.

Photo: AFSC / Jesus Palafox

Pembroke Township, Illinois, was the site of an AFSC work camp 43 years ago. In 2010, 13 of the 20 participants gathered in Duxbury, Massachusetts, for a reunion. Teenagers and young adults when they first met, now they are 59 to 67 years old. At the gathering, they caught up on each other’s lives, cooked their meals together (eating considerably better than they did in 1967), went for walks, and shared how their AFSC experience had influenced the direction of their lives.

Pembroke, a rural, unincorporated, largely African American township, is only an hour south of Chicago. In this community, the estimated mean household income in 2008 was only half of that of the state as a whole; 40% of the residents still had no running water. During the summer of 1967, the work campers staffed a Head Start Program, ran a mobile crafts unit and helped repair homes. 

As the reunion attendees reflected on what they’d learned so long ago, they remembered accepting gifts of food and fellowship from those with few material goods to give. After a couple of them put up a ceiling in the home of an elderly woman, she killed one of her chickens for a lunch to thank her young helpers. They found pride, fortitude, and courage in a community with multiple challenges, including pervasive poverty.

Clearly, the summer of 1967 was a transformative experience, even informing their future careers. Pat Glowa, now a family doctor, said, “Since the Pembroke work camp, I have thought less grandiosely, focusing instead on little actions I can take.”  

Mary Van Blake-Shoaf, a corrections officer, shared, “I realized in Pembroke the importance of working with the community rather than just trying to implement my ideas.” 

Win Engel, also a family doctor, reflected, “I know that it changed the trajectory of my life. It led me to seek out underserved communities and to work with people who suffer with chronic pain.” 

Toward the end of the reunion, the work campers considered ways to make a contribution to Pembroke today. Following consultations with AFSC-Chicago and residents of Pembroke, and a quick fundraising campaign, money was raised to bring two Pembroke students to the Peace. Here. There. Everywhere. Summer Institute, and for all twelve Summer Institute participants to visit Pembroke Township to do community service. The Summer Institute, started in 2008, brings together Chicago area high school activists for an intensive three-week social justice training. 

Pembroke high school students Shizzell Glenn and Darrin Thomas began their adventure in Chicago on June 27. At the Summer Institute, they learned everything from yoga to anger management skills. They studied the Israel Palestine conflict, learned about the federal budget and made videos on how they would spend on society’s needs rather than war and defense.

They also introduced their new Chicago friends to Pembroke Township during the service days. They assisted the township librarian and helped to inventory Pembroke’s Basu African American Museum.

On his way back to Pembroke after the Summer Institute, one of the students wrote, “I will come and visit you again. It was a fun experience that will last a lifetime. Thank you!" Pembroke school staff, seeing Shizzell’s and Darrin’s new leadership skills, is asking if even more Pembroke students can participate next summer. Both AFSC’s Chicago staff and the work camp alumni hope that the renewed contact with Pembroke continues with Summer Institute participation for two high school students each year.