Students travel the country and beyond to perform good deeds with Alternative Winter Breaks


Dozens of students from Central Michigan University gave up a week or more of their winter breaks to travel around the country and help those who were less fortunate.

With the popularity of the Alternative Breaks program soaring, more students than ever were clamoring to participate in one of the breaks, where they would travel to a location – be it Texas, Connecticut, or even Germany – to assist a population there for one week, as well as learning more about their cause.

At the end of the fall 2013 semester, 19 different groups went out, including six new breaks that had never run before.

Each group corresponds with a social issue, from food sustainability to animal rescuing to helping those with disabilities.

“Alternative Breaks are life changing experiences," said Josh Finch, a site leader for the Food Justice Break. "People get so caught up over the idea that they would give up a week of their break, but anyone who has gone on an AB can attest that you gain so much more."

At the beginning of the process, students interested in signing up did so on the OrgSync web page. Experienced AB-ers suggest waking up early – registration starts at 7:30 a.m. sharp, and if you’re not on the page by 7:25, chances are good that you will not get signed up for a break.

From there, the groups meet once a week during the semester to educate themselves and others about their particular social issue. They find out where they will be traveling to after they have been accepted into a break group, to offset the possibility of students choosing a certain break just for a cheap trip to a certain area.

No matter where they went, the participants of Alternative Breaks had nothing but good things to say about the program. Finch, a Midland senior, said it was one of the best things he had done in his college career and recommended the experience to all students at CMU.

“This experience allows you to learn about critical issues in our society, meet some of the coolest people you'll ever meet and refresh yourself in a way that only an AB can do,” Finch said.

Many of the other site leaders shared his point of view, saying Alternative Breaks make them feel inspired and refreshed when they return. CMU boasts one of the top five Alternative Break programs in the nation. Many of the site leaders urge other students to get involved with one, and to see for themselves why the program is nationally recognized.

“I believe that alternative breaks are important because they help students work directly with a social justice issue that they care about,” said Shawn Knight, one of two site leaders for the Animal Rescue Break, which traveled to Austin, Texas. “It also allows them to do it in a different community at a minimal cost, which is something that is very unique when it comes to volunteering. We also hope that students will bring what they learned back to the community.”

While many of the breaks are organized each year, the Mary Ellen Brandell Volunteer Center works to add new programs and the locations are subject to change annually. Registration for alternative summer breaks is at 7:30 a.m. on Jan. 27 using OrgSync.

The trips

One of the pioneer trips was an international AB that traveled to Germany and Poland in an effort to learn more about the Holocaust and its victims where it happened.

This trip was a bit different from the usual Alternative Breaks journeys. While they did some service learning – the students raked leaves at Auschwitz – the main focus of the trip was to learn about the Holocaust, not only as it happened during history, but its impact now and in the future.

"Usually, we think direct service is the most important, like building a house or teaching children," said Rachel McDaniel, a participant and Allegan senior. "But for this trip, our service is learning. Now what we really need to do is take what we've learned and share it with our community at home."

Another such trip took a group of students to Biloxi, Miss. to help restore some of the devastation that Hurricane Katrina wreaked eight years prior.

"This trip really opened my eyes to the immense devastation that still exists from Hurricane Katrina, even though it happened eight years ago," said site leader and Royal Oak senior Michele Kissick. “The part that impacted us the most was hearing the stories about Hurricane Katrina directly from the people who lived through it. Everyone had such a different experience with it, and being able to hear about how they rebuilt their lives was truly amazing."

Another group traveled to Austin, Texas to work at the Austin Zoo and Animal Sanctuary, a non-profit zoo in the city.

While there, the volunteers were able to work in several different animal habitats, such as those of primates, lemurs and foxes. They also assisted zookeepers in their day-to-day activities including food preparation and cleaning.

Another first time alternative break was the Science and Technology Education break, which traveled to Oklahoma City to help promote the enjoyment and education of Science and Technology to students there.

The volunteers helped kids with experiments and assisted the museum in other daily tasks.

“I think understanding science, or at least finding it interesting, is important for students to produce the next generation of scientists that will change our world,” said Edwardsburg junior Salina Bosworth, one of two site leaders on the break.

Click the image below to check out our interactive map of all 19 Alternative Winter Breaks.


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