BY MARY SOLBERG | FAITHLIFE
As a young girl growing up in Baghdad in war-torn Iraq, Mariam Alkhafaji always wanted to help people. But the daily threat of death kept her from reaching out to others.
“When I was in Iraq, I didn’t have a chance to give to the community,” says Alkhafaji, now a sophomore biology/pre-med major at Erie’s Gannon University. “I wanted to help, but to be safe, I had to consider a lot of things. There were explosions, people getting kidnapped and getting killed.”
All of that changed when she and her family moved to Erie as immigrants in 2014. She graduated from the former East High School, and then enrolled at Gannon, where, she says, “they gave me the chance to do service.”
On her recent spring break, she opted to spend a week in Erie helping to build Gannon’s new St. Joseph House of Faith in Action. She served as a co-leader of the six-student alternative break service.
Located in the 400 block of W. Fourth Street, not far from the edge of Gannon’s downtown Erie campus, the one-story St. Joseph House is an outreach of the school’s Center for Social Concerns. Its purpose is to be a gathering place for neighborhood revitalization efforts by Our West Bayfront, a nonprofit neighborhood organization.
From Feb. 25 to March 3, Alkhafaji joined five other Gannon students and several employees—including Gannon President Keith Taylor, Ph.D., and Erika Ramalho, director of community and government relations—installing insulation and hanging drywall.
“When I came to Erie I got a lot of support from the community, way more than I expected,” Alkhafaji says. “I want to give back.”
President Taylor called St. Joseph House “a home base for transformation.” Students, he says, could have done any number of other things on their spring break.
“It just goes to the heart of Gannon students and why they pick Gannon in the first place,” he says. “They know what our mission is and what drives us and what is important as part of education. It’s not just the classroom piece; it’s how do you transform students and transform the community in the process?”
Taylor, along with the students and other employees, spent every morning at St. Joseph House, getting their hands dirty.
The students spent the rest of their days working and living out of nearby First Presbyterian Church of the Covenant. They met community leaders, served the needy and learned about the urban neighborhoods in which Gannon is situated.
For Caden Pabon, a freshman political science major, St. Joseph House is “a symbol of hope.” He learned about adjacent neighborhoods affected by poverty.
“This experience has expanded my faith tremendously, and it’s expanded who I am as a person,” Pabon says. “I see myself coming back here to work on the house again.”
According to Ramalho, St. Joseph House could be completed by the end of May. Two Gannon employees are expected to live there rent-free so they can save money to buy their own homes in the neighborhood. Home ownership in the area is low.
The house features two private bedrooms, three full baths, a large kitchen, an office, a community room for social programs and an open space to accommodate 12 to 15 people for overnight stays.
“We are downtown because Gannon has always had a commitment to the community,” Ramalho says.
In conjunction with Our West Bayfront, Gannon has worked on the St. Joseph House with Building Systems Inc., which built the basic structure of the 2,400-square-foot home.