It took a church basement full of grade-school kids to show me how much more there is to Iowa than just cornfields.
How did this happen? One Friday afternoon in the spring of my second year, my good friend Dan Covino ’10 convinced me to hop on a campus bus with him and some other volunteers and head to Des Moines to play with underprivileged kids at the Trinity United Methodist Church after-school program.
Friday Fun Night, as this program is called, has been taking Grinnell students to Des Moines in this way for 20 years to engage with extremely energetic but wonderful kids on a weekly basis. Because Grinnell offers so many weekly on-campus events and activities, not to mention whatever impromptu shenanigans students come up with on their own, I had never before seen any reason to leave campus in order to have fun. I was admittedly very skeptical that non-Grinnell Iowa had much of anything to offer me. However, since that first evening, I’ve gone back every chance I get.
Friday Fun Night always seems to be just as much fun for the college students as it is for the grade-schoolers. The club was established by Grinnell students and the Methodist Church to provide children in the area with a safe and supportive environment in which to start off their weekends. Every Friday, Grinnellians coordinate and lead fitness activities for the children, which transition into crafts. We finish out the night by sharing a snack with the kids. Themes reflect major holidays, the seasons, and the choices of the kids themselves. When it gets warm enough, we travel to the playground across the street to play football and capture the flag — but mostly we play soccer. Often the neighborhood kids, usually recent immigrants from Africa and Latin America, join in the games.
Being from an ethnically diverse suburb right outside Chicago, I’m no stranger to cultural diversity. I had arrogantly assumed that outside of Grinnell, bucolic, white-bread Iowa would never be remotely comparable to the diversity found in a metropolitan area the size of Chicagoland. So imagine my surprise to find 40-plus Latino/a, white, and black grade-schoolers romping happily together in a church basement in Des Moines. I was thrilled to discover that I could have conversations in both Spanish and English with pint-sized third-graders. I didn’t realize how much I missed interacting with people outside my age group, especially those younger than me. Volunteering with the student group allowed me to step outside of my college-aged bubble.
Friday Fun Night taught me just how much the areas around Grinnell have to offer my peers and me. Grinnellians are great at coming up with homemade fun, so if you never want to step off campus to enjoy yourself, you don’t have to. But one of the biggest myths I’ve encountered here is that we stick to on-campus activities because we have no other choice. In reality, there is so much more than cornfields to experience offcampus. I believe that Grinnell students tend to forget that the rest of the world also has a multitude of experiences to offer them.
For me, those experiences lay just 45 minutes west down I-80.
Matt Clarke is a Spanish Major from Skokie, IL.