Alternative Breaks, Spring 2014

SMU Alternative Breaks took students, faculty and staff to 10 cities during spring break 2014 to serve community organizations while also learning about issues such as the environment, poverty, public health and education. Learn more at smu.edu/ab

Growing gardens and community in San Francisco

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An update from Hena, a sophomore majoring in political science and public relations who participated in the Alternative Breaks trip to San Francisco:

San Francisco is a pretty interesting city. It wasn’t at all what I expected, and I’m glad it wasn’t.

Our group arrived in SanFran (as group leader, Katie, likes to call it) on Saturday afternoon. As we walked to our hostel, we passed by a man experiencing homelessness who could tell some of us were on edge. He uttered the words, “Wave and don’t get robbed!” Katie thought he said, “Wave and don’t give up” so she made that her motto for the rest of trip. It was a good motto to have as we trekked up the hills of San Francisco! We arrived at our 1920s hostel, which was absolutely amazing. People from so many different cultures and backgrounds surrounded us. Some were staying there as they toured San Francisco, and others were students at local schools. We got dinner at Mel’s, a San Francisco diner, that night and then got some groceries.

The next morning we began our service journey with Quesada Gardens Initiative. On Monday, we got to hear a lot about the purpose of the community garden and its history. It was amazing to hear from the leaders and to see their passion come through.

I think what I found most interesting was their mission. In Dallas, when we think of community gardens, we think of being “granola” and environmentally friendly. We think that these gardens serve as means to create good clean food. Although this still stands true for Quesada, their main goal is community building. The two gardens (Quesada Garden and Bridgeview Garden) are set in Bayview, a culturally rich neighborhood with an absolutely amazing view of the bay.

Before the gardens, no one knew his or her neighbors. The lots were full of trash and people went about doing their own thing. The founders of Quesada Gardens decided to find a way to combat these issues alongside others through a community garden. The project also continues to grow because their mission is so broad that they are able to do a lot of different things. For example, they have movie nights by the garden and they offer a summer dance class to keep girls busy and away from drugs, crime, etc.

We got to work in the garden for the next few days. None of us expected it to be as hard as it was. We de-weeded the two gardens, and planted in one. De-weeding was especially hard work. For me, it was kind of a stress reliever and I really enjoyed it. After working in the garden even for a few hours, we all began to realize how much it really takes to put together and run a garden. The weeds never seemed to go away! I knew it was hard, but I never realized just how hard. I also realized how rewarding it was. With gardening, you get to see the fruits of your labor come to life, and now I’m excited about hopefully having at least a small garden when I have my own home.

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On one of the days, Mary (the Bridgeview Garden leader) took us to a groundbreaking ceremony for the Bayview Opera House, and the mayor was there. For a lot of us, it was one of our favorite experiences of the trip. We got to hear from many natives of Bayview and San Francisco about the new things that they were doing to develop a stronger community bond. For them, developing community helped solve other issues like crime and drug use. They were all so passionate and dedicated to the work that they were doing.

After the ceremony, we all reflected on what community means. For Dallas, the term community is completely different. In San Francisco, people eat, live, and work in the same area. In Dallas, community has less of a meaning; it is almost something we hope for but don’t know how to achieve. That night in reflection, the ceremony led us to discuss the idea of creating a larger sense of community on campus. It got the discussion started and inspired a lot of us to think about our actions and how we can change them to strengthen community bonds at SMU.

The service was a truly amazing experience and I know it was just what I needed to remind me of how much of an impact I can make. If two people starting a small garden can bring together a community, I can’t even imagine what I can do with all of the resources that we have as SMU students and Dallas residents.

San Francisco was also an amazing city with so much to do. Each neighborhood had its own identity and something interesting to offer. The weather was perfect and the city was vibrant and full of energy. We got to see Chinatown (great Chinese food!), the Mission (look up Mission Dolores park, it is the coolest), Upper Haight, Nob Hill, Soma (where they have the coolest food truck park), and the Golden Gate area.

For our fun day, we walked across the Golden Gate Bridge (which was actually pretty tiring) and took a ferry ride back toward Fisherman’s Wharf where we enjoyed Ghirardelli Square and great seafood. Our last dinner together was perfect. It was crazy to see how close I got to people I had only known for a few days. Every person in our group was inspiring. Everyone had their own goals, yet they were able to think about helping others. Everyone had a different impact that they wanted to make, and I’m lucky to have spent a week with them doing service and opening up to new experiences.

SF

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Supporting animal rights in Taos

An update from Sabrina, a sophomore majoring in business who participated in one of the two Alternative Breaks trips to Taos:

When most people think of spring break, they imagine taking a relaxing trip home to see family and friends or a destination vacation for sightseeing/countless hours spent on the beach. While these are certainly popular choices for many, the week full of experiences that I shared with 8 other students and a faculty advisor was far greater than any of the aforementioned endeavors.

We began our trip in the wee hours of the morning, meeting outside of Hughes-Trigg to load the (questionably) sturdy white van and depart for the ~11 hour drive to the SMU-in-Taos campus. After a long day of travel, and a little confusion as to where we needed to go when we first arrived, we all settled in for the night to get some rest before our first day of service.

IMG_1798On Monday morning we arrived at Stray Hearts Animal Shelter ready to put in some work; little did we know that the various tasks we would be assigned to do began with yard work. Given some instruction and a brief introduction to the shelter, we split up into two groups and began removing weeds from the areas surrounding the outdoor dog kennels. The Dollar General became our friend on this trip, and our first stop included the purchase of some work gloves in light of the many finger pricks we received from the weeds.

I was one of the lucky few to be taken away from the yard work to go inside with another trip participant and fold laundry; I say we were lucky not because of the switch in task, but because of what we got to see because of the switch. Adjacent to the cozy laundry room was the puppy area, and we had a perfect view of several sets of innocent faces. Our hearts melted as we saw them squirm around the kennel and curl up together when they settled down, but in the background of this scene we heard the barking of numerous other dogs, which caused our hearts to break a little. I know I find it hard to think about how sad it is that so many dogs are abandoned or seized from horrible conditions because they must be so scared.

We returned to Stray Hearts on Tuesday morning and were met with more yard work and some kennel cleaning. After a little dialogue between site leaders and shelter personnel, we arranged to have some dog time in three kennel rooms. It felt great to give the dogs a little personal attention, but leaving each cage was hard, especially when we saw the dogs so anxious to break free from confinement.

On Thursday morning we spent our last hours at this service site. We cleaned more kennels, moved gravel in the parking lot to prepare a level surface for the cat quarantine structure, and observed two dog behavior evaluations. This experience was interesting because we got to see how shelters around the nation are being instructed by the ASPCA to evaluate the various behaviors an animal can exhibit in given situations. This is particularly important when animals are being transferred to other shelters and when they are being considered for adoption.

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Although our expectations for the general types of work we would be doing were a little misaligned with what we actually did, each member of the group approached every task with a solid attitude. During our time working we knew that the work we were doing was helping the animals, and we talked about this during our reflections at the end of the day.

Jumping back to Monday afternoon: after we ate our pre-packed lunches at a nearby park, we headed over to a location we all fell in love with. From the moment we drove up to the Equine Spirit Sanctuary we were met with smiling faces, namely Ruth, the sanctuary director. She welcomed us to the facility by telling us about the animals they house and how ESS originated.

After we watched a video about the birth of one of the sanctuary’s current horses, Bay Lee, we were introduced to the remaining horses and donkeys and then assigned our first task. The sun was shining, and we opened cans of paint and wood stain to touch up the riding arena, barrels, and new saddle stands. At the end of the painting we got to brush the precious donkeys and miniature horses. We returned to ESS on Wednesday to work the full day, when some students cleaned saddles and tack, some finished up painting, and others began cleaning up after the horses. After the dirty work was done, we were allowed to brush the horses and spend some quality time with them in the arenas, learning a little more about horse behavior.

On Thursday afternoon we completed our service at ESS and for the week by painting the arena at the entrance of the property. I’m pretty certain that every student on the trip had at least one moment of complete serenity at ESS; it was hard not to. The sanctuary is positioned far from the road, and with the beautiful mountains serving as a backdrop we were all hooked. The last time we drove down the very bumpy Los Caballos Road away from the amazing animals and loving people, I know we were all a little sad, but hopefully we will return someday soon.

On Tuesday afternoon we met one of the most intriguing and passionate individuals I’ve had the privilege of encountering in the animal world. Her name is Pennie Wardlow and she is the Executive Director of the Four Corners Animal League. Pennie spent the time telling us some of the tragic conditions in which she has seen animals and how she and her nonprofit have been able to help.

emuFrom the discussions we had, we even arranged a visit with four rescued emus on Thursday afternoon. It was a little shocking hearing about how horribly people could treat animals, and we all agreed that humans are charged with a responsibility to help animals because they do not control the situations in which they find themselves.

What was particularly inspiring about Pennie was the personal interest she has in doing whatever it takes to be an advocate for animals; she is a shining example of a selfless individual. Not only does she have a passion for helping animals directly, but she has a vision for the future and acts upon her goals by educating the youth about animal care and animal rights. Pennie even got us to realize that no matter what career path we choose, there are always ways to have a positive impact in the animal rights world.

Thursday night after our emu visit, everyone was eager to get to Ojo Caliente, a world-class spa resort with several mineral pools and steam rooms. It was the perfect end to the service portion of the trip and served as the segue into our free day on Friday. This is my second Alternative Break, so I was familiar with the concept of the “free day,” and in Taos we had many options. Although a few of us were sad that we didn’t get the opportunity to ski, all sadness was pushed aside when we unanimously voted on llama trekking!

This was something I didn’t know existed, but I can speak for everyone on the trip when I say it was time well spent. It was very fitting that a group interested in animal rights spent its leisure time hiking with five rescued llamas along the Rio Grande Gorge. Our enthusiastic and uber passionate guide Stuart took us along the route explaining the issues surrounding llamas and sharing his interests with us.

We hitched our llamas to some trees and took our lunch break at an overlook with a breathtaking view of the gorge. As we sat there eating our PB&Js, the clouds and wind rolled in making for a cold trek back to the van, but the presence of the llamas made the unfavorable weather more bearable. We arrived safely at the llama trailer and helped to get the llama saddles back in the truck. Before we said our final goodbyes we fed the llamas treats and took a few final pictures to remember the adventurous day.
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This was one of the most enjoyable weeks of the entire school year and an amazing Spring Break that will be hard to beat. Between the unforgettable experiences we were so fortunate to have and the incredible group dynamic we had working in our favor, we knew it would be hard to return to the “real world” of homework, tests, and early morning classes. On our final reflection night we discussed what we could do when we got back to Dallas, and one thing we all agreed on was to finding our passion and sticking with it. All of the people we met in Taos shared with us what makes them truly happy, and inspired us to find a niche of our own in the future.

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What one person can do

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An update from Abigail, who participated in the Alternative Breaks trip to Indianapolis:

Sometimes we forget the impact just one person can have. This rings especially true when we serve. Whenever I serve I always feel this irrational need to make a grand difference in the world, to do something essential to the advancement of humankind or world peace. However, the reality is, service is often grunt work and may even seem like work that is virtually inconsequential.

I5During spring break, I took part in my very first Alternative Breaks trip to Indianapolis, Indiana, where I and a team of nine others helped out at Global Peace Initiatives. None of us were entirely certain what exactly Global Peace Initiatives was once we arrived on site, but we were quickly greeted by its founder, mastermind, and as we discovered, only worker, Linda Proffitt. Linda is quite a character who is full of life, energy and wisdom. She has a true passion for feeding the hungry and educating her peers about the importance of food quality and sustainable agriculture. Global Peace Initiatives is all about training the world to treat the earth with care, to nourish our soil, and to ultimately eliminate hunger.

I4Of course, when Linda told us to pick up a shovel and start shoveling mulch and “casting” (that’s a fancy word for worm poop), it was difficult to see that vision clearly. My teammates and I were often frustrated with feeling inadequate in terms of our service. The work was back-breaking, and we often failed to see progress.

Still, Linda was diligent in her encouragement and constantly reminded us that though we couldn’t see the results of our labor, we were still huge blessings for her organization. As our team bonded through the freezing cold, the stench of farm life and the blisters on our fingers, we slowly came to realize our impact at Global Peace Initiatives. Throughout the week, though we may not have been able to readily see it, Linda had taught us the impact that just one person can have. Though she, as the sole driving force of Global Peace Initiatives, could have thrown in the towel a long time ago, she believes in the work she does and believes it will have a lasting impact on the world.

I have learned through my week with Alternative Breaks that this is how we must also view service. Though we may never see the fruits of our labor, and though the work may seem futile at times, we must believe that the service we do is worth the effort.

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Serving young students in Taos

An update from Sana, a junior marketing major who participated in one of the two Alternative Breaks trips to Taos, N.M.:

Taos1“DAAAD, turn up the air,” yelled Baby B from the backseat. It was Wednesday of spring break, and our AB group had already turned into family. From hilariously comical chaos to obnoxiously assertive demands, our trip experience was topped by the sincerely reassuring love we received from the students at Roots and Wings Community School in Taos, N.M.

Our days in Taos started early. We would drive out of our sweet casita home at the SMU-in-Taos campus for breakfast and to pack our lunch for the day. Then we would embark upon our 45-minute commute to the school, located 8,800 feet above sea level. Every single day, we would pass through picturesque mountains and valleys that look as if they came from National Geographic. Along with soaking in the Taos sun through our windows, our mornings consisted of spontaneous trips to local coffee houses, where we tried breakfast tacos, donut croissants and pinion coffee.

At school, all of us divided into different classrooms, either helping kindergartners on ecology projects or working with test preparation for second-graders or even attempting college-level essays for eighth-graders. We had the opportunity to see every aspect of school by interacting with the students and teachers. We formed close bonds with the students, making it exceptionally difficult to depart on the last day.

Taos3Throughout the week, our Taos group of “frugal friends” had the opportunity to sightsee in the city. We visited the shops in the plaza, explored the hot springs within the gorge and discovered the earth ships. However, more than anything else, we valued each other’s company – often just each other’s presence. I am beyond grateful for a family of uniquely vibrant personalities with unbeatably remarkable Mustang spirit.

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