Students volunteer across country for Alternative Break programs


Canton senior Mark Zdan (right) instructs a group of student volunteers at the St. Bernard Project headquarters in New Orleans, Louisiana on Dec. 18.

Canton senior Mark Zdan first discovered his love for the Alternative Break program in 2015, when signed up to take part in the "rural poverty" program in Jonesboro, Arkansas.

He volunteered at a food distribution program for impoverished individuals living in the community. Zdan liked the experience so much that he signed up for another break in the spring, where he traveled to Pittsburgh to assist in "urban renewal" efforts.

Offered during winter, spring and summer breaks by the Mary Ellen Brandell Volunteer Center, the Alternative Break program gives students an opportunity to spend their break volunteering throughout the country.

Over winter break, 255 students were sent to 22 different locations across the country, said Erica Johnson, assistant director of the Mary Ellen Brandell Volunteer Center. The students were split into groups of up to 12 people.

"While it is difficult to choose just one aspect of the breaks that is the most valuable, I would say that participants in (Alternative Breaks) learn the transferable skill of how to work with others to address community problems," Johnson said.

Zdan spent his winter break serving as a site leader for an excursion in New Orleans where students worked with the nonprofit organization the St. Bernard Project. The organization was founded in March 2006 to assist those affected by Hurricane Katrina.

On the break, Zdan's group worked with SBP to repair a house that was destroyed by a tornado in February — specifically by hanging drywall and interior painting.

Zdan believes the Alternative Break program is valuable because it offers unique experiences that most students won't be able to find anywhere else in their college career. During this last break, Zdan met a survivor of Hurricane Katrina and heard her firsthand story of what she went through. 

"(Alternative Breaks) is a really great program because it has something to offer for pretty much everybody," Zdan said. "It's great way to meet people. I'm still in touch with the people I worked with on my breaks from years ago."

Zdan was attracted to the project due to his interest in construction. While on break, Zdan's group stayed in a local community center that doubled as a place for homeless people to receive food and shelter. 

He compared the living conditions to a hostel in Europe. He said this type of living arrangement is typical throughout the Alternative Break program, including the breaks he went on in the past.

The volunteer center offered 22 volunteer locations over winter break, an increase from 19 offered last year. Among the new locations were Wall Township, New Jersey for community restoration and Savannah, Georgia for urban arbor — taking care of trees within an urban setting.

Hartland junior Brooke Rose handles an Alligator at the Everglades Outpost animal sanctuary in Homestead, Florida on Dec. 21, 2017. 

Hartland junior Brooke Rose spent her break in Homestead, Florida, where she worked at the Everglades Outpost animal sanctuary. The shelter works to ideally rehabilitate and release animals into their natural habitats. 

In cases where  the animals were surrendered or altered in a way that prevented them from being re-released, volunteers at the shelter care for the animals full-time, Rose said.

In addition to caring for animals at the shelter Rose's group helped clear debris and damages left from the recent hurricane season. 

Rose said she valued the opportunity to meet other people that shared her passion for animal welfare.

"Although it's not related to my field of study, I am very passionate about animal welfare and animal rescue," Rose said. "I thought it would be a great opportunity to get involved with Alternative Breaks for the first time and to branch out of my comfort zone and do something I'm not used to. Even the difference that volunteering for just one week can make is tremendous."

Also in Florida at the time was Canton senior Joshua Geary, who volunteered to help maintain two of the state's national parks.

At the Everglade National Park, Geary and other volunteers helped pick up debris left from Hurricane Irma in September that the understaffed national park had missed.

At Biscayne National Park, Geary helped pick up trash that regularly washed up on the shores of the island-based park due to littering. 

Working for the volunteer center as a social media and registered student organization outreach student coordinator, Geary has participated in two other breaks in the past.

"I really like to choose issues that I'm not too knowledgeable on," Geary said. "The idea of nature conservation is important to see the human impact on climate change and global warming. It's important to understand that humans have a very direct impact on our planet's environment, and to see that firsthand was really education."

Some of the break programs offered let students take a less direct approach to their volunteer work. Eaton Rapids sophomore Katie Franz accompanied a group to the Sci Tech Museum in Aurora, Illinois to assist in the museums daily operations.

Franz helped give tours to local schools that came to the museum and develop demonstrate the museums exhibits.

Before this past winter break, Franz participated in two Alternative Break programs: "alternative education" and "leadership through education."

"Last year, I went on a couple (alternative) breaks and I realized that I loved taking all this free time that I have and serving a community and putting my efforts into making these communities better places," Franz said. "I would recommend (Alternative Breaks) to every single person I've ever met if I could."