Alternative Breaks, Spring 2015

SMU Alternative Breaks took students, faculty and staff to 10 cities during spring break 2015 to serve community organizations while also learning about issues such as the environment, poverty, public health and education. Learn more at smu.edu/ab

AB in New Orleans

An update from Olivia, a sophomore biology major:

I woke up earlier than usual the morning we were about to set off for New Orleans. I just couldn’t sleep—it was my first time leading an Alternative Breaks trip, and I felt thrilled by the opportunity to work with disaster relief, an issue that still plagues the nature-torn city.

Before the trip started, I had my reservations about leading a trip of my own. I felt nervous the first time we came together as a group. At our first pre-trip meeting I met the eyes of many strangers, but I dispelled my doubtful thoughts with the knowledge that service would bring us together. I have seen it happen time and again on Alternative Breaks trips, and I had faith that it could work its magic this time, too.

And it did.

We partnered with the St. Bernard Project, an incredible nonprofit organization that ensures recovery to disaster-impacted citizens and communities in a prompt, efficient, and predictable manner. They have rebuilt homes for nearly 900 families since 2006, starting as a Hurricane Katrina recovery group and expanding to other states over time.

During the week that our trip progressed, we began to realize the depth of how wide-reaching this issue really is. People have been displaced from their homes for the past decade — the shock of this realization opened my eyes to the suffering of others, dealing with a problem that I had never even had to consider. Our understanding of the issue only deepened when we toured a Hurricane Katrina exhibit, which gave staggering statistics on the disaster. More than 1,800 people died, and thousands more had to evacuate, some of whom still haven’t been able to return. Eighty percent of the city and large tracts of neighboring parishes became flooded. The hurricane caused about $108 billion worth of damage.

But we came away from the trip with more than just statistics. The St. Bernard Project enlists Americorps workers to run the organization, and every member is completely dedicated to his or her service. The site supervisors were the first ones to welcome us warmly into the unfinished house that we stepped into that first day. They taught us how to seal a hole, paint the walls, and use a power sander, but they taught not only through words, but through actions. We learned what it meant to lead through example; what compassion, dedication, and service truly look like — and that was the most invaluable part.

I cannot believe how lucky I was to have been able to lead a group on such a priceless adventure. I got to know an incredible mixture of people that I wouldn’t have met otherwise and was able to combine my two passions of service and travel. Throughout the trip, my group bonded through slaving away at polishing floorboards, making spontaneous Walmart runs, and walking through the crazy streets of New Orleans. The laughter filled the air and blended seamlessly with the jazz music that surrounds the city.

With a little more experience under my belt, my conviction for service has only grown stronger. I look forward to being able to contribute my abilities to other communities, and feel happier knowing that there are others working just as hard for the same ultimate goal — to make the world a better place.

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Alternative Break in Costa Rica

An update from Danielle, a senior:

I spent this past Spring Break in the Orosí Valley of Costa Rica, with a group of nine SMU students and two staff members, volunteering at the El Pueblito shelter for abused and neglected children.

Our group at El Pueblito's entrance

Our group at El Pueblito’s entrance

The children at El Pueblito were taken out of their homes by the equivalent of Child Protective Services in Costa Rica. El Pueblito has about nine different houses for children on site. Our group entirely remodeled a courtyard behind one of the houses by scraping all of the old paint off the four buildings surrounding the courtyard and repainting them with bright and cheerful new colors.

We also spent time with the kids in the afternoon, and one of our favorite activities was playing soccer with them. We normally had five SMU students playing against a large group of five- to 10-year-old kids. The kids at El Pueblito were such good soccer players that even when we tried our hardest they creamed us. Sometimes they tried to “make it even” by adding a few kids to our team, but the other team still won.

Our group in the Orosí Valley

Just look at that beautiful scenery in the Orosí Valley!

Additionally, every AB trip has a Service Enhancement Day where the group takes a day off from volunteering to learn more about the culture and population they are serving. In Costa Rica we went to the Irazú Volcano, explored the ancient ruins in Cartago, and experienced a local market. Not only did our group have a lot of fun on this day (just like we did every day!) but seeing more of Costa Rica also helped us to better understand how the work that we were doing in a tiny valley fit into the “bigger picture” of Costa Rican society.

Overall, my time in Costa Rica exceeded my expectations just as my AB trips always do. I returned home from Spring Break with an amazing group of 10 people who were strangers before the break, but now close friends. And even more important, I returned home knowing that I had spent my break making a positive impact both on the children we were serving and on the group I was leading.

I’m sad to say that this trip to Costa Rica was my seventh and final AB trip as an undergraduate at SMU since I’m a senior and going to graduate in May. I will be forever thankful for everything that I’ve learned about myself and the world around me from Alternative Break. According to SMU, world changers are shaped here. And I can honestly say that because of SMU Alternative Breaks, I want to change the world.

Our group in front of the SMU colors we painted!

Our group in front of the SMU colors we painted!

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AB in Kimberton Hills

An update from Mimi, a senior double majoring in advertising and psychology:

 

mimi1Spring break – the two best words in the spring semester, am I right? For me this year was a very special spring break because it was going to be my last! Especially because of my crazy senior year schedule that includes a part-time job, an internship, being an exec in a student organization and a packed class schedule. I was looking forward to spring break even before school started. Now, being my typical scatter-brained self, did I realize that any hopes for this break would go out the door when I accepted a site leader position for an Alternative Breaks trip? Nope. I’ll be honest, in the weeks leading up to spring break I dreaded everything associated with AB. There were multiple times I wanted to drop out as a site leader so I could enjoy this break as I wished. However, looking back now I would’ve regretted it so much if I did.

Before I start blabbering about how fun this trip was, I want to give a quick brief about the trip location that I was assigned to – Camphill Village Kimberton Hills in Pennsylvania. Camphill is a non-profit dynamic farming, gardening and handcrafting intentional community that works side by side with people of all ages and varied abilities. They have locations in North America, Asia, Europe and Africa all created around the same purpose – to work with, empower and treat disabled people as equals. Some of these disabilities include mental health issues, Down syndrome, autism and more. At every Camphill there are full-time volunteers that stay for one or two years, and even families that have moved from all over the nation to live in this unique community to help nurture and grow with the villagers. And around 6:40 a.m., March 8, 10 people from SMU who barely knew each other were about to fly over to this tiny little town.

As our plane was nearing to land, we saw ponds that were completely frozen over and piles of snow everywhere. Turns out, the week we arrived was the first week the weather started warming up – thank goodness for our rain boots. Our home for the week was at Camp Sankanac, and it was great. We stayed in two cabins that also had a game room with ping pong and pool tables, a big kitchen where we made every breakfast and dinner together, a nice living room where we hung out at the end of the day, and our kind host made the place feel even more homey!

Making banana pancakes and bacon!

Making banana pancakes and bacon!

 

Best team ever - everyone giving a helping hand to make breakfast and dinner. best team ever.

Best team ever – everyone giving a helping hand to make breakfast and dinner. best team ever.

On our first day at Camphill the director gave us a quick tour of the village, talked to us about the different work places and discussed how we’d interact very closely with the villagers (people with disabilities) and the volunteers. We were split up and given morning and afternoon shifts to different places throughout the week.

A typical day consisted of a morning shift (8:30 a.m.—noon), lunch break (noon – 2:30 p.m.) and an afternoon shift (2:30 – 5:00 p.m.) Those at the garden harvested a variety of greens, planted seeds, chopped thorny branches (wasn’t the most pleasant thing to do), washed crates and more. Some pruned trees and shrubs in the orchard, helped make delicious cookies or pack organic granola at the bakery, prepped for meals and cleaned around the café, helped out with pottery projects and more. When we were at the houses, the things we did varied from vacuuming, working in the yard and playing with the kids. We were invited to have lunch every day in different homes in the village while we were there, and got to listen to and share stories.

Doing hard work!

Doing hard work!

Working at the weavery

Working at the weavery

Killing that ice!

Killing that ice!

Throughout each day, all of us had chances to interact with both the villagers and the volunteers. The volunteers shared their lives with us. It was such a pleasure to get to know these people who came from all over the world including China, Germany, Italy and Israel, just to name a few. The villagers excitedly talked to us about anything! There was Mark, who loved telling jokes; Andy, who could tell you what day of the week you were born, which was; and Susan, who was so sweet and complimented us every day. The list never ends!

Hanging with Ben

Hanging with Ben

We loved spending time with the villagers!

We loved spending time with the villagers!

Working with Camphill this spring break humbled me, and taught me so much. My perspective on people with “disabilities” has changed drastically. I know I would’ve never gotten a unique opportunity like this anytime soon so I feel blessed that I got the chance to do so through AB. Aside from the work we did with Camphill, I definitely can’t forget the countless other memories I made on this trip with my awesome group of people – our movie nights, making our super “healthy” dinners together, drinking too many cups of hot cocoa, playing a slightly modified game of Apples to Apples, seeing the sunset on the Franklin Bridge, walking all over Philly, getting to eat on the stage at Hard Rock Café, arriving at the historical Liberty Bell with 10 minutes to spare…the list goes on.

Eating raw honey - straight off the comb

Eating raw honey – straight off the comb

Six days later, on March 14th, my group and I all came back to Dallas with hilarious videos, pictures, inside jokes and so many stories to share. Wouldn’t have spent my last spring break any other way. Thank you to my freaking awesome group, and thank you Alternative Breaks!

 

Ran all the way up to Franklin Bridge just in time to see the sunset.

Ran all the way up to Franklin Bridge just in time to see the sunset.

Thanks, AB!

Thanks, AB!

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Human trafficking: ‘An everybody issue’

An update from Aveline, a sophomore majoring in piano performance and accounting. She traveled to Atlanta for Alternative Spring Break to focus on human trafficking:

My trip to Atlanta a few weeks ago may have easily been one of the best spring breaks I have ever experienced. I had always felt a little upset when I heard news of people being exploited against their will, but the seven days I spent serving in the Atlanta (aka United States’ number one hub for sex trafficking) opened my eyes to the alarming reality of this industry.

My trip mates and I worked with three nonprofits throughout the week: Beloved Atlanta, Wellspring Living, and YouthSpark. We served and assisted these three organizations in whatever ways they needed. At Beloved Atlanta, I sorted through and organized warehouse boxes and raked leaves at the Beloved House. We deep-cleaned both of the Wellspring Living homes and had the chance to briefly interact with some of the girls living there. YouthSpark asked a few of us to put together information packets, while the rest of our team were tasked with helping YouthSpark move to a different office.

In one short week I gained a deeper understanding of how massively destructive the over $32 billion sex trafficking industry has become in today’s society. I experienced only a tiny glimpse of the intense trauma and pain victims must continue to work through years after being set free. I could not even begin to imagine what it would be like to be in their place. I was burdened by the blatant injustice happening all around us every day and felt disappointed in myself for my previously apathetic attitude toward this topic.

I had the opportunity to witness the transforming change that can happen through the work of only a handful of individuals. I treasured the “fireside chats” the Beloved Atlanta and Wellspring Living staff spent with our group and listened as they recounted tear-jerking stories of broken young girls who entered their program and emerged years later as strong women with bright futures. I learned what the human soul is capable of when I watched victims completely forgive those who had hurt and wronged them so deeply.

I learned that human trafficking is an everybody issue. I was inspired by the way police enforcement, government officials, lawyers, counselors, religious leaders, social workers collaborated together and willingly gave of their time and resources to help someone they had never met before. I learned that as a second-year college student I do have the power to effect positive change and that if we — SMU, Dallas, Texas, America — would rise together as one to fight against injustice and inequality, this world could suck a lot less.

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Rediscovery in Taos

An update from Kendell, a first-year majoring in dance and minoring in human rights, who traveled to Taos, New Mexico for Alternative Spring Break:

I was not sure what to expect when I arrived in Taos, New Mexico at the beginning of my spring break. No person can deny its natural geographic beauty and appeal. When the other SMU students and I arrived at the Roots and Wings, a public charter school about 40 minutes’ drive from the SMU-in-Taos campus, we were all struck by the overwhelming view and serenity that surrounded the small school. With no more than 40 students, the school includes pre-Kindergarten to eighth grade, with three main classrooms and an art room. A small play area with a tiny greenhouse fills the main front lawn.

The founder and director of the school, Peg Bartlett, wanted to have a meeting with us before we all went our separate ways in the school. She discussed where the SMU students would be needed throughout the week and informed us that Ms. Annalise, the pre-K teacher, wanted the same two or three people throughout the week. Somehow I found myself raising my hand even though I had never had that much experience with kids. I wrote my name down on the schedule that Peg made for us and soon headed out of the room with Sara-Ann, the other SMU student and site leader for the trip, to Ms. Annalise’s classroom.

Like all new experiences I am very timid and shy when approaching a new environment with people I have never met before. I had never worked with kids much before so I wasn’t exactly sure how to act around them. It didn’t take me long to figure out why parents themselves need naptime, too. The kids bounced around like a bunch of mini Energizer bunnies and barely seemed to pay any attention to the teacher. Instead of drawing letters on their chalkboards, they doodled to their liking. I was struck by the rambunctiousness of the kids and the semi-chaotic environment and energy of the classroom. Although there were no more than 10 students in the classroom, I often wondered how Ms. Annalise managed to make sure that all of the kids were on the same page with what they were learning. Very often I had flashbacks to my own childhood and my own education at their age. I didn’t remember my learning environment to be so chaotic. As the week wore on, I felt a tremendous amount of gratitude for my own education and my parents’ ability to make sure that I got a reputable one.

Throughout the week, my involvement with the kids increased both within their school lessons and at playtime. As we got closer to our last day, I became more and more attached to the kids and invested in their education and time at school. Day in and day out, I would never cease to be amazed by their sense of joy and curiosity about life. Maybe it’s because of their ignorance about life and all of the baggage that comes with it, but the kids reminded me that I too, was once a child with not a care in the world. I found the simpler things, like playing tag and capture the flag, to be the highlight of my experience. I can’t remember the last time I went outside to run around and play games. There was something about the sun on my face and the running through the melted snow that made me feel like a child again, and that I hadn’t grown up and decided to go to college. My red converse shoes are ruined of course, but I think I like them better now with the mud stains. Each day I found myself to be more and more exhausted, but also energized by the kids’ smiles and enthusiasm about the day and life itself.

I think there are times in our life, if we are lucky enough, we find a place that seems to make sense inhabiting for a period of time. There are these tiny corners of the world that are filled with something so small and so ordinary, but for some reason, our experiences transform it into something special for ourselves and for others. I feel lucky enough to say that I was able to find my new favorite corner of the universe in Taos, New Mexico at Roots and Wings. Hank Green once made a point in a YouTube video of his that it’s not the physical, geographical location that makes a place special, but the people there. That is what we always remember most about the places we went- not what we saw, but whom we spent it with, the people we meet and the lives we touch.

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Food insecurity made real

An update from Annika, a sophomore majoring in sociology:

Spring Break: plenty of students flock to the beach or mountains, to music festivals, or home to see their family. But some choose to spend their week of freedom giving back to the community through Alternative Breaks. Usually I like to use my breaks as a time to relax, but this year I decided to try something new and signed up for the trip to Atlanta to focus on food insecurity at the Atlanta Community Food Bank (ACFB). Going on an Alternative Break trip is quite the experience, and being able to use my time to give back to the community is rewarding in ways that a typical spring break experience is certainly not.

At the ACFB we worked with the community garden team and in the Product Rescue Center (PCR), as well as took part in the “Hunger 101” educational program. The ACFB distributes 45 million pounds of groceries each year through 600 partner nonprofit groups serving 29 counties in Georgia. The PRC is where volunteers sort through donated goods to separate the usable from the unusable. The Community Gardens program partners with 100 local community gardens to promote the consumption of fresh and healthy food. Each of these programs focuses on a different aspect of tackling the issue of hunger: redistributing unsellable items and creating sustainable food sources. Along with the myriad of other programs that the ACFB sponsors, these projects help serve 80,600 people a week.

It was the little things on the trip that really brought home the issues people face when it comes to hunger. Grocery shopping on a budget for our group of 11 was not easy at the best of times, but trying to get everyone’s needs met, stay on track, and cook a filling and nutritious meal was compounded with the awareness that this is part of the issue the Atlanta Community Food Bank is working on. We were lucky in that there was already a reasonable budget set aside for food, but for many families there is little to no money left after all the bills are paid and other necessities accounted for. For these people the food bank helps them get through a tough time that they might not otherwise be able to endure.

Even if you can afford the food, you need the time to prepare a healthy meal. Again, this is something we experienced. After a long day of volunteering everyone wanted to eat right away, but it often took up to an hour to get all of the food ready. Many families do not have time to cook, and so must spend the little money they have allocated for food on prepared meals and fast food.

These examples may seem trivial, and having to put up with it for a week was easy enough. But to live everyday not knowing where your next meal is coming from, or how to pay for it at all, or even how to find the time to eat, let alone something healthy, is not trivial at all. Food insecurity has an impact on all facets of a person’s life. We need food to survive: it is not something that can be done without.

Food is unique in that it is an issue that affects literally everyone. No one on this planet can survive without it. We live in an age of excess, and it is very easy to forget that many are not able to partake and reap the benefits that some do. Food insecurity can affect anyone, even someone with a stable and steady income: all it takes is illness, death, or natural disaster and the previous stability is now precarious. If we aren’t fed, how can we accomplish anything? Solving or at least alleviating the issues of food insecurity is important for our future and for future generations.

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Nurture over neglect in St. Louis

AB

An update from Michael, a junior majoring in English and political science who participated in the Alternative Breaks trip to Youth in Need and Crisis Nursery in St. Louis, Missouri:

In March 2015, Alternative Breaks sent a group of six students and one advisor to St. Louis, Missouri, for the purpose of volunteering with Youth in Need, a nonprofit group providing pre-kindergarten schooling to low-income students, and Crisis Nursery, an organization offering temporary shelter and social services to abused children.

Over the course of our five days we divided our day between volunteering at the pre-kindergarten school in the morning and the nursery in the afternoon. While at Youth in Need each of us assisted teachers with their classes of three- to five-year-olds; at Crisis Nursery we had the opportunity to play and interact with children ranging from newborns to pre-teens. Through our experiences at both organizations we learned how difficult it can be to teach and care for children, and personally I also came to appreciate the challenges children from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds face in their ability to succeed in school and life. As we helped with everything from instructing pre-kindergarten students on how to count to playing with toy cars with toddlers who came from abusive relationships, some of the issues that underprivileged children face became a reality with a face and a name to it.

Breaking up into groups at Youth in Need, we each worked in our assigned classrooms from Monday through Friday, so with this cross-section of experiences we were able to compare among ourselves what was typical behavior from the students and the teachers. Often students with the most behavioral issues, for example throwing toys and screaming at other children, had the greatest difficulty with comprehending their lessons, so we discovered that students who disrupt the classroom both pose and face greater academic problems than their more well-behaved classmates.

For young students, regardless of whether or not they disrupt the classroom, the process of becoming at home in a structured social learning environment is a key benefit of the early childhood education that Youth in Need (and Head Start more generally) provide. Different situations seemed to predictably elicit different responses from the children. At the water play area, one student would predictably have trouble sharing his toys and space with the other students, and another student seemed to have chronic difficulty with concentrating and participating during the group songs and dances.

Faced with students like the ones I just mentioned, we had to quickly adapt to our new surroundings and roles by telling the students what the limits of bad behavior were and by encouraging the students to act differently by engaging them through conversation and diverting their attention to situations and areas where they would be less prone to be disruptive. Even with classes having between fifteen and twenty-five students, we saw how difficult it can be to lead a classroom full of young, energetic, and often rambunctious students. With detailed and personalized knowledge, the teachers individualized their positive and negative reinforcements of the students’ behavior. While the necessary condition for being a good teacher seems to be the ability to care for others, the sufficient condition for being a good teacher seems to be the ability to understand others. The best teachers we observed at Youth in Need had a passion for both caring and understanding their students. By the end of our time at Youth in Need, I grew to greatly respect the work the pre-kindergarten teachers do.

As with the students at Youth in Need, the children — often abused —who come to Crisis Nursery are in great need of people who are both caring and understanding, and we witnessed the difficult situation faced by the staff members at Crisis Nursery who provide shelter services for three-hundred and sixty-five days a year and twenty-fours hours a day. At Crisis Nursery we visited and volunteered at several of their locations, so we were able to gain an appreciation of the scope of the organization’s wide reach and deep support within the greater St. Louis community.

As for the children, despite the difficult situations in which they found themselves, they were friendly and willing to interact with us; however, I also noted that they could be somewhat more reserved than the students we encountered at Youth in Need. Although it is difficult to establish a relationship between the children and the staff members at Crisis Nursery given the seventy-two hour maximum time limit for a stay at Crisis Nursery, I saw how the staff members tried to make each child feel safe and appreciated in the shelter. Given that Crisis Nursery provides short-term shelter, I wondered what happened to the children who were not able to find sanctuary at Crisis Nursery.

From volunteering with Youth in Need and Crisis Nursery not only did I become more aware of the needs of children in terms of education and protective services from abusive relationships, but I also became more knowledgeable about the difficulties of staffing and operating organizations that work with the issues of early childhood education and social services for abused children. Both Youth in Need and Crisis Nursery taught me that to provide educational and protective services to underprivileged children, the government and civil society need to partner with each other: Youth in Need works with Head Start, and Crisis Nursery is affiliated with many St. Louis-area public health systems.

Finally, I come away from this Alternative Breaks volunteer mission with a sense of respect for the children, teachers, and staff members with whom we worked, and I also leave the experience with a sense of urgency about the issues of limited access to high-quality early childhood education and limited availability of emergency shelter and social services for abused children.

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