Mike Weaver was teaching environmental health at the University of South Florida back in 2011 when he posed a question to his students that would change the trajectory of life: How would you like to go serve New Orleans?
Of the 44 students who decided to take him up on his offer, only two had previously visited the city. Twenty-five of them had never ventured outside the state of Florida. Twenty-five.
For his part, Weaver had traveled there a lot, drawn by his interest in former Morehouse students he’d taught in 2005 and who returned to the Crescent City after being displaced by Hurricane Katrina.
Weaver and his 44 charges arrived there during spring break and for three days worked alongside a group of retirees building raised beds on one of the city’s urban farms, Magellan Community Gardens.
“We had a wonderful time serving,” Weaver recalled.
But this wasn’t just about building raised beds, clearing debris from vacant lots and planting vegetables. It was also about building relationships.
“I really believe we understand each other better by working alongside each other,” Weaver said. “Working side by side, we don’t have time to get lost in our differences. And the beautiful part of it is we can actually talk about those differences across generation, across race, across ethnicity and abilities.”
In the years since that first road trip, Weaver has taken nearly 400 teens, college students, professionals and seniors on nearly a dozen such “service tours” to Baltimore, New York City, Boston, Miami and our nation’s capital.
In addition to volunteering, they visit college campuses and take in the sights.
Jason Hodges, a stay-at-home dad who met Weaver at the Andrew Young YMCA where the two work out, has supported the tours both physically and financially.
“Mike provided such a thorough, intense experience that I felt like I had been through a college semester in a matter of days,” Hodges said. “No one asks Mike to do this, but if you ask him, I think he will tell you that he’s just paying forward what others did for him when he was a teen. For some people, a trip like this can make all the difference in the world.”
Such trips had made a difference in his own life. Weaver credits field trips he made to the University of South Carolina during his junior year in high school for his drive to earn a master’s degree in 1992 and a doctorate in public health in 2004.
“That’s why the college visits are crucial to the service learning tours,” he said. “I know what it did for me.”
Weaver’s efforts recently won him an AARP Purpose Prize, one of five $50,000 awards. He was also presented the agency’s first Andrus Award for Intergenerational Excellence.
When he heard about the prize, Hodges said, “it sounded like Mike was a perfect match.”
“I’m grateful and humbled by it, but this is really a labor of love,” he said.
The AARP Purpose Prize recognizes outstanding work by people age 50 and over that is focused on advancing social good. Weaver, a married father of three sons, is 52.
He and the other award recipients were recognized early this month at a gala in Chicago.
“All over the country, millions of older adults with fresh ideas and big hearts are finding unique ways to help people in their community,” AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins said. “We are proud to highlight some of the very best examples of that phenomenon with the AARP Purpose Prize Award.”
Last week, Weaver was in the midst of planning his 12th service tour, this one to Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle and the first that’ll require air travel, which means any donations will be appreciated. You can email Weaver (firstname.lastname@example.org) or give him a call at 803-716-9622.
Returning participants have until May 1 to sign up. After that, any newcomers are welcome. As with other tours, 54 people — 34 teens and 20 adults — will make the trip at a cost of $150 each. The cost includes airfare and lodging.
Just keep in mind, this is not a vacation. If you don’t want to work, don’t sign up.
“We’re going to have fun like always, but primarily understand this is not just about seeing America, it’s about serving America,” he said.
To date, Weaver’s tour has operated under his name and Concerned Citizens of Aiken/Atlanta Now or WeCCAAN.
The goal, however, is to do what WeCCAAN does on steroids and thus change its name to See and Serve America.
Sounds good to me.