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Women’s issues explored during ECU spring break

By KAREN THIEL

For the Daily News

Several undergraduates who could have whooped it up during spring break spent a few days in Washington, learning about local and worldwide women’s issues.

As part of East Carolina University’s 10th-annual Alternative Break Experience Program, the eight women are among more than 75 students who spent most of this week learning to “address a variety of causes,” according to an ECU press release. Trip locations included Greenville, Asheville, Raleigh and Wilmington, plus Columbia, South Carolina and Washington, D.C.

Featured “causes” are the environment, juvenile justice system, LGBTQ community, urban development, homelessness, youth concerns and, locally, “women leading change.” Participants here said the Washingtonians they spoke to provided life-altering inspiration.

Those presenters included Leesa Jones, founder and executive director of the Washington Waterfront Underground Railroad Museum; Laura Scoble, owner of Backwater Jack’s and Highwater Social; Liane Harsh, owner of Inner Banks Outfitters; Tommi Bridgeman, owner of Diversion Escape Rooms; Sara Beth Withers, owner of Inner Banks Legal Services; Virginia Finnerty, city councilwoman and owner of Pamlico House Bed and Breakfast; Mary Mehlich, owner of Wine & Words & Gourmet; Debra Torrence, executive director of the Turnage Theatre; and Kaitlyn O’Donnell, the VISTA/AmeriCorps Community Resources Associate at Pamlico Rose Institute, a nonprofit that runs the future Rose Haven home for female veterans.

“They were great, interesting, curious and really wanted to learn,” Mehlich said of the students, adding that her time with them included advice to “never let go of your passion; you may have to put it on the back burner, but don’t ever give up.”

Lauren Givens echoed that sentiment after visiting the Washington Waterfront Underground Railroad Museum, where founder Leesa Jones held the group spellbound with stories of Washington-based plantation owners and slaves who inspired her to create the local landmark.

“No matter how different they were, they all ended up meeting their goals. Their dreams were made real, no matter how rough their road or how long it took to get to their goals,” said Givens, a public-health major.

The collegians said perseverance, focus, humor, determination, strength, courage and a sense of community were common to everyone they met.

“The women in this town aren’t afraid to pivot. Everyone we’ve spoken to has done that,” said Caitlin Friello, an Air Force veteran and the group’s student lead. “Just because you’ve made a decision about your major doesn’t mean you’re stuck with it for the rest of your life.”

“It was like a shock that there are just so many inspiring women here, going for what they believe in,” said psychology major Naomi Rollar, who noted that most businesses in her part of New Jersey are male-owned.

Naomi Gardner, a 51-year-old PHD graduate in ECU’s Student Affairs Certificate program, said Leesa Jones’ presentation confirmed that “We need to have uncomfortable conversations in order to bring the community together, especially now that our country is so divided.”

The daughter of a sharecropper, whose great-great-grandfather escaped being lynched, Gardner said “it’s been beautiful” to hear so many strong women share their experiences.

Student participants included Emily Amend-Long-Mills, Juanita Gardner, Lauren Givens, Naomi Rollar, Annagrace Saufley, Alyssa Stanley, Cailee Vetrano and Juliana Wilson. They were accompanied by student leads Caitlin Friello and Ashley Cleland, who is associate director of the Women and Gender Office at ECU.