New York City is often known for its iconic landmarks and sights; it’s easy to think of the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State or Chrysler buildings, or perhaps the Brooklyn Bridge.

However, the ever-changing people of the city truly make it the place it is. They are amazing people with stories the members of Vancouver College’s Outreach Team had the honour to be a part of, if only for a short time. Ask any of the 22 young men on the March 10-18 service trip, and they will likely tell you that the best part of the trip was the time spent with the students of Public School 29 and St. Ann’s after-school care program.

These great kids live and attend school in the Bronx, one of the poorest communities in the U.S. It was a huge contrast to the privileged backgrounds most of us grew up with.

Walking through the Bronx on the first day, our group realized we stood out. Local residents made comments as they passed, and by the time we made it to Public School 29, we were all feeling rather defensive. Our teacher suggested we talk with some middle school students having lunch in the schoolyard, and we followed apprehensively.

We began by tossing a football among ourselves, until a boy in Grade 8 walked up and joined us. This would eventually become an intense game of two-hand touch football that helped bring us together. Sport broke down barriers that were keeping us apart, and we developed many relationships with other students during the week we volunteered at the school.

Getting to know the kids, both at the middle school and at St. Ann’s after-school care program, and learning about their goals and hopes was amazing. I began to write down the names of the students I spoke with and eventually compiled a list of over 30 students.

Despite any adverse circumstances they were in, I spoke to kids who dreamed of becoming FBI agents or artists; who imagined joining the military so they could help people; who loved math and science; and who were brave enough to come up to us and make a connection rather than the other way round.

Vancouver College student Scott Brown with children at a public school in New York.

They were also very aware of their situation. After some Grade 3 girls waved us down to sit and eat lunch with them, they asked why we would come to a ghetto school. They couldn’t understand why we would want to spend time in a place they, only in Grade 3, already knew people looked down on.

I was lucky to be placed in a Grade 4 classroom while serving at the school, and the affection of the kids was amazing. During lunch and other breaks, we played tag, which really consisted of multiple kids grabbing on to me and pulling me in every direction. At one point, a teacher had to tell these Grade 4s and 3s to be less rough with the much bigger and stronger 18-year-old me.

Throughout the trip, it was inspiring to see the conviction and affection these students had, and an important reminder that no matter where we live, we are all a lot more similar than we think.

Father Gregory Boyle, a Catholic priest working in Los Angeles, was once asked whether he had ever brought any of the gang members he worked with to Jesus. He replied that it was they who brought Jesus to him. In the same way, it was those kids who brought Jesus to us and changed our lives.

Sean Ryan is a Grade 12 student at Vancouver College. The school's Outreach Team volunteered at schools in New York City March 10-18, 2019.