I spent the weekend before last at a YMCA camp near Jackson, Mich. for a leader retreat with the Ginsberg Center’s Alternative Spring Break program. It was a great way to spend a bye-week Saturday. We played a lot of group-bonding games, ate s’mores around a bonfire and slept in wooden cabins. In between, we worked on learning how to identify with people from other cultures, communicate in new ways and acknowledge the suffering of the people with whom we’ll be working.
I woke up Sunday morning totally pumped for Spring Break. But our final activity got me thinking: How much did we really learn this weekend?
We’re all students at the University of Michigan, which makes us all pretty lucky people. We’re extremely fortunate to be well-off enough that we can devote time during the school year and our entire Spring Break to helping others who don’t have a lot of the privileges we take for granted. It was these thoughts that slapped me in the face Sunday morning as we reflected on the weekend’s best and worst experiences.
The answers were fairly uniform. Good things included getting to know everyone, hanging out around the campfire and getting excited for our trips. The bad things were being cold in the cabins at night, not showering and not having enough time to finish our homework.
That’s when I realized: We’re not getting it, are we? We spent the weekend playing games intended to teach us how to communicate, empathize and work with people from different cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds. But then we missed the point of the experiences that might have really taught us something about these people, how they live and work and how they suffer. It was definitely enlightening to work out a problem when no one in your group can talk, some people are blindfolded and one person can’t move, but that didn’t impact me as much as my realization Sunday morning.
Those are just games. We enjoyed them and learned something, but we still complained when we were cold at night. We didn’t shower one night, but we ate all our meals in a cafeteria. For the people we’re going to spend our spring breaks helping, this isn’t a weekend thing, and it isn’t a game. They’re always cold and always hungry. They never get to take a hot shower or brush their teeth, and they don’t wake up after a chilly night on a camp mattress and eat pancakes someone else cooked before driving home. Some sleep on the ground, without even the comforters we pulled off our beds, and they have no money for food and nowhere to cook it even if they could buy it. They can’t grab an extra hoodie because they don’t have a first one, and they don’t have chemistry homework from one of the best universities in the country hanging over their heads. It’s enough if they can read.
It seems to me that in those few hours we spent being cold and not quite clean, we could have learned more if we had only stepped outside the box of our own temporary discomforts and realized that for so many people, this is reality.
Don’t get me wrong: I love Alternative Spring Break and everything it stands for. And I’m more excited than I can say for my trip and for the year I get to spend working with this amazing group of people who are willing to give so much of their time and energy to make a difference in this world. I just think it would be good for us and for those who will benefit from our help if every once in a while we took the time to realize how fortunate we are. I think this would remind us to complain a little less about things that are momentary annoyances.
Madeline O’Campo is an LSA junior.