Beyond the basic break

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Students who participated in this year’s Alternative Breaks didn’t merely attend a series of spring break bashes, but instead, they were party to an organization that helps communities in need.

Recruitment and Public Relations Coordinator Crystal Swanson said that Alternative Breaks offers students a chance to travel to those communities and make a difference.

“We have sent trips within the state to Detroit,” she said. “We have gone out of state, New Hampshire for example, and we have sent trips out of the country to places like Nicaragua.”

For each trip, there are typically 10 participants and two site leaders; these students spend time getting to know one another before the trip by fundraising and attending meetings.

Site leader Anna Vollmar said Alternative Breaks sent out seven trips this year, and each had a different goal to complete relating to the community they were helping.

“This year’s goals range from helping the homeless, HIV/AIDS carriers, animal welfare, and refugees,” she said. “People may not realize that we do more than just work with humans and we don’t focus on just one social issue. It is important to have a broad range of issues to attract everyone who may not have an interest in some social issues.”

In past semesters, students traveled to New Orleans to work with Project Homecoming – an organization that helps families rebuild their damaged homes in the wake of Hurricane Katrina – and New York City to help deliver and package meals that benefit people with HIV, cancer, and special dietary needs, among others.

Over this past spring break, however, experience leader Halie Champney traveled to Xenia, Ohio, with 10 other students to work with 4 Paws for Ability, an organization that trains dogs to help people with special needs.

She said she was drawn to Alternative Breaks because it gave her a chance to help Michigan communities and out-of-state communities.

“This organization helps students to get out of their comfort zone by interacting and communicating with people from different communities,” she said. “Alternative Breaks also helps students understand and establish their role as an active volunteer.”

Swanson said the students taking part in Alternative Breaks are from a large pool of students and include a variety of majors or minors; moreover, according to Swanson, the effort they put into the program pays off.

“Students can benefit by seeing how their hard work serves a certain organization they work with,” she said. “In addition, they learn how to work with a hard social issue and possibly how to combat it back home. In a lot of cases, your eyes are opened to an issue, and you have a new perspective on things.”

Student Susie Balcom said she can’t imagine spending her winter or spring breaks in any other way.

“At first you have no idea what you’re getting into, honestly,” she said. “(Alternative Breaks) can be very last minute and can change without any warning – but that’s sometimes the best part. Not only are you serving community, making friends and learning about important social problems, you get an experience that is unlike any other before or will ever be again.”

Swanson added that Alternative Breaks is about more than just the trip, as even the outcome of helping a community is both educational and exciting.

“After the trip, we have the leaders and participants work on a poster board that is informational about their social issue, such as homelessness, and then mention places around here that do the same thing,” she said. “They do a poster presentation in Curtiss, and school heads and students are invited to come to the event to learn about the different social issues.”

Participant Tricia Cole said her group completed several tasks during their stay in Willow River, Minnesota, including the creation of easels for an art room, birthday cards for campers and a repainted wall.

“Throughout the week, our group became incredibly close,” she said. “We shared many deep and personal moments about our lives, and I have so much respect and appreciation for every one of my group members.”