Spending a month of summer vacation traveling around the United States with friends sounds like a typical college student’s dream.
Working at nonprofits and filming a documentary wouldn’t usually be part of the itinerary, but that’s exactly what the guys behind The Starfish Project did.
Winona State University student Kai Hovden and recent WSU students Spencer Hartz and Wiley Koehler created the Starfish Project earlier this year with the idea of spending a summer helping others while seeing the country, naming the group after the famous parable about a man saving beached starfish.
The group drove to nonprofits, helped out, and interviewed people involved and created online videos about each experience.
“It’s probably the coolest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” Hovden said. “So many times I was out of my comfort zone.”
They visited places like the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in Pine Ridge, S.D., one of the poorest places in the country, and the Midnight Mission, a Skid Row homeless shelter in Los Angeles.
They didn’t waste any time once they arrived at each destination. As soon as they arrived at the Midnight Mission, for example, the guys were put to work serving breakfast to more than 1,000 homeless people, Hovden said.
“We went from being scared to joking with them,” Hovden said.
Their mission to help also regularly manifested itself in unexpected ways. At Midnight Mission, they met one man who was excited that they had the ability to send a picture of him to his mom — it had been a long time since she had seen a photo of him, and he couldn’t afford the technology to send her one.
While in Los Angeles, they stayed at a villa that belonged to Hovden’s family, which created quite a bit of culture shock while going back and forth to Midnight Mission. They also learned about the cliché of never judging a book by its cover.
“One thing I learned was that even people in the worst situations are always positive and loving, especially in Skid Row,” Koehler said.
One of Hovden and Koehler’s favorite visits was their last stop, in Topeka, Kan., at the Equality House, a famous rainbow-colored house that’s a neighbor of the notorious Westboro Baptist Church known for controversial protests at military and other high-profile funerals and events. Some church members recently came to Minnesota to protest at weddings after gay marriages became legal in the state.
As part of the mens’ stay at Equality House, the Starfish Project ended up being one of few to get a chance to interview members of the Westboro Baptist Church. Hovden said the group was initially denied, but eventually invited in to sit in on a service. They were also invited to do an interview with a daughter of Fred Phelps, the founder of the church, at her home.
“That was terrifying,” Hartz said. “We had 15 minutes to prepare for it.”
“All of our other interviews we had planned months in advance.”
Before the group left, they had only planned how much gas they would need to get to the next destination, which created some adventures.
“Some of where we stayed might have been illegal, but the doors were always left open,” Hovden said of a few places, like an announcer box at a high-school football field on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
They left notes at each place explaining who they were, but haven’t heard back, Hovden said, so they figure they’re in the clear.
The trip was a success in many ways, the men said, one being that it brought more attention to the nonprofits.
“I remember thinking before the trip that if a couple people knew of the organizations it’d be good,” Hovden said. “More people know about it now.”
Although all of them plan to enter the real world soon, they want to still take advantage of similar opportunities in the future.
“We’d like to maybe sponsor a trip for other people if we can’t go,” Hovden said.
The next one they’re planning is a trip to an adventure camp in Colorado for people with brain disabilities, but that doesn’t mean others have to travel as far to do good.
“There are good groups and organizations everywhere,” Koehler said. “You don’t have to go on a month-long road trip to find them.”