“Since I was six, I was accustomed to seeing homeless people,” says Helena Fu, who was sad to see people sleeping on the street as she rode the train to school every day from Queens to Manhattan. “I had such empathy for them but often felt, what can I do to help?”

Recently Fu, a junior studying urban planning and math, gave up her spring break to work with the homeless in Ashland, Tennessee. She organized a seven-day trip to the Penuel Ridge Retreat Center there, rounding up 10 other MIT students to join her. The students spent the week with nine homeless men and women, getting to know them and working together on maintenance of the grounds.

The trip was one of six sponsored this year by Alternative Spring Break, an MIT program that organizes weeklong community service trips. Since the start of the program five years ago, students have taught in inner city schools in Washington, D.C., while others have worked for Habitat for Humanity, building houses for low-income families. This year 60 MIT students participated in the program.

When Fu arrived at the retreat center, which is part of a wildlife preserve, she was assigned to work with a homeless woman named Bonnie. “When we first met it was really strange,” Fu says. “I didn’t know what to say. Like, what do we talk about? MIT?

“Then Bonnie said: ‘What is MIT? Is that a local college?’ It was so good to meet someone who had never heard of the Institute. That kind of anonymity was great, because it wasn’t like, we were the smart kids. I wasn’t sure how to begin a conversation, but then it just came easy. She had a great sense of humor and such an easy laugh.”

At the retreat center, the students and homeless people together carried huge logs up a steep hill and laid them into the hillside to build steps. Then they laid gravel on the walkways and dug deep holes into the ground to install handrails for the stairs.

“The homeless people knew much more about the tools than we did,” Fu says. “When it came to physical labor, they put the MIT students to shame.

“Putting steps into the rocky hills was difficult because you needed to use a pick axe. When the work got tough, our first inclination was let’s take a rest. We just didn’t have the strength. One homeless man was so hardworking, he said: ‘We’re not going to take a rest until the work is done.’ You think of MIT students as being so diligent. What amazed us was that the homeless people were urging us on.”

Many of the homeless men and women said they sometimes slept in a Nashville church. Many told Fu how deeply grateful they were to have occasional food, clothing, and shelter.

“Their gratitude amazed me,” Fu says. “I have never met people in my life who have so much trust in God. That’s what impressed me most about the whole trip. These people look to God for everything and thank Him for blessing them with so much. “Here I am a student at MIT. I have a supportive family. I have so many material possessions I take them for granted. I have a computer and an Internet connection. I have shoes on my feet and a warm comforter on my bed. I have a heater, an air conditioner, and a stereo system. I even have three coats.

“Interacting with these people and seeing their deep gratefulness changed me. I feel much greater gratitude for my family, friends, and material comforts. The trip really opened my eyes and changed my heart.”

At the end of the day, the MIT students gathered with the homeless people to share their thoughts. The homeless people said they loved the chance to get to know the students and also loved the opportunity to be at such a beautiful, peaceful place. The MIT students shared that they were surprised how genial, funny, and grateful the homeless people were.

“We were both blessed by the experience,” Fu says. “It’s a great gift to influence and be influenced by others.”

Fu once believed that one person’s effort doesn’t count much in the world, but now she’s not so sure. “The volunteer work that you do often changes you more than the people you are trying to help. Hopefully my interaction with Bonnie is something that she’ll remember, too, but I know that her incredible gratitude about her life certainly changed me.

“Now I have a greater sense of how to relate to people who are different from me. I won’t make such swift judgments about others. I’ve learned that people are a lot deeper than you think.”