You’re staying in the Haitian mountainside, spending your days building raincatchers to filter and store fresh water for the impoverished local community. Before you arrived, women and children had to walk hours to the nearest fresh water source – disease-infested water, at that. One evening, the doctor you’re staying with tells you something you won’t ever forget: “You have seen this, now you bear the responsibility. You have no excuse, take the responsibility seriously.”
It’s a bit different than taking body shots off of a stripper in an Acapulco nightclub.
Every year, hundreds of University students eschew the stereotypical drink-til-you-forget-your-name spring break in favor of a community service-oriented one. In the last decade or so, “alternative spring breaks,” as they’ve come to be known, have become less of an “alternative” and more of a spring break norm.
In 1990, the University’s Alternative Spring Break launched its first trips: 15 students traveled to work at Habitat for Humanity sites in Niles and Kalamazoo, Mich. This year, over 350 students will travel to 34 different sites with what has become the country’s largest ASB program.
How did two small trips to western Michigan balloon into an array of different trips provided by various groups? Talking to participants, the same cliché pops up: It’s a life-changing experience.
University alum Gaia Stenson is the site leader for New Life Church’s spring break trip to Haiti for a second consecutive year this year. It was Stenson who promised the doctor that she wouldn’t forget what she saw in Haiti and would take seriously her new responsibility to helping those in need.
From the moment Stenson’s group landed in Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, she was unprepared for the scene in front of her. She had known what to expect: over-crowding and a standard of living unlike she’d ever seen. But seeing it in person was very different than reading it in a newspaper.
“It’s just a profound experience,” she said. “I can’t plead ignorance anymore.”
Somehow though, this doesn’t seem all that exciting. Everyone who goes on an alternative spring break comes home with the same incredible story. The places change – Chicago, Uruguay, New Orleans – and the work changes – rebuilding homes, tutoring students, delivering food – but in a strange way, they’re interchangeable. The simple formula for these programs remains the same:
Step one: Take a student somewhere completely out of his or her comfort zone.
The alien worlds of Uruguay and Haiti make obvious examples of this, but leaving the country isn’t the only way to leave what you know behind.
Maddie Serena, a member of the ASB leadership team who graduated last semester, participated in two different spring breaks in two of the most familiar cities in the country: Chicago and New York. While Serena said her evenings were filled with activities like shopping, eating out or simply bouncing around the city, her days were spent far away from the bubbles of downtown Chicago and the Upper West Side, where her group was housed.
In Chicago, Serena took an hour-long bus ride to a middle school in a crumbling South Side neighborhood. In New York, she delivered food to some of the roughest parts of the Bronx.
Step two: Make them pitch in.
Most trips house students in churches or hotels slightly removed from the worst conditions, but when it comes time to work, students become a part of the local fabric. When a student works all week in a foreign environment, it becomes impossible to forget what he or she has seen. Spending a week in the Bronx isn’t the same as making a wrong turn on your way to Yankee Stadium.
LSA sophomore Shelley Rosenberg, who spent last spring break with a Hillel program building homes in Uruguay, said the first house – belonging to a family of three – was startling.
“The house they were living in was pretty much a cardboard box with some pieces of tin – literally anything they could find,” she said. “It was half the size of my dorm room.”
But she said that seeing every house and seeing every family with the same problems was the true lasting image.
“The closest description would be American Hoovervilles in the Great Depression,” she said. “It was eye-opening.”
Rosenberg is a site leader for this spring’s Hillel trip to New Orleans.
Just because the formula is simple, however, doesn’t mean it doesn’t work. If the goal of spring break is to come back with an amazing story, these programs certainly don’t disappoint. A cynic might say that a week of spring break can’t solve the problems it sets out to solve. An optimist might say, “Who cares?”
Stenson isn’t na’ve about the effects of one week’s work. She said she believes that all service affects change in the community, but the long-term results of a spring break service trip are even greater for the student.
“I just really think there’s a complete possibility of your life being drastically changed,” she said.
Maybe this explains the spiritual component that exists in the programs. Even in the non-religious atmosphere of the University’s ASB, reflection and strengthening the bonds between the students are major parts of each day, Serena said. Many of the other programs are affiliated directly with religious groups like Hillel and New Life.
Despite the affiliation, these trips aren’t inherently religious. Stenson said there were several non-Christians going on the various New Life trips and – with a few exceptions – volunteers aren’t out to convert people. She said there was time set aside for reading the Bible and prayer, but these were not mandatory. In fact, both Stenson and Serena used the terms to describe the post-workday process “debriefing” and “reflection.” Prayer isn’t a part of Hillel’s trips, though the meals are kosher and Saturday – the Jewish Sabbath – is a mandatory day of rest.
This comes back to the original question: How did these programs take off? The answer may be a little cheesy: it’s because everyone comes back with the same story. That same story is incredible. When Serena walked into the all-black middle school where she tutored, all the students called her “Lil’ Whitey.” By the end of the week, she had become inseparable with her five sixth-grade students. They opened up to her about their lives and some of the struggles they’d gone through by age 11. When she left, they told her that because of her they all planned to go to college. Serena still writes to them. And they write back.
It’s the same story, but reading it in the newspaper isn’t the same as seeing it in real life.
– Mekelburg is an outgoing Daily news editor and a winter semester opinion columnist.