Serving across the states

Spring Alternative Breaks include 176 students in 15 locations nationwide

Rural Poverty
Student volunteers work with the Food Bank of Northeast Arkansas for the Rural Poverty social issue on a 2018 Spring Alternative Break in Jonesboro, Arkansas.

During spring break, 176 students traveled to 15 locations across the country to volunteer as part of the Mary Ellen Brandell Volunteer Center Alternative Breaks Program.

Offered during spring, winter and summer break periods, alternative breaks give students an opportunity to spend their vacation volunteering for a variety of charitable programs throughout the nation.

This year, there were two new projects added: Neighborhood Nutrition in New Orleans had volunteers working to introduce sustainable community gardens in an urban environment, and Coastal Restoration in Galveston, Texas had volunteers work to protect marsh environments.

Jennifer Drevon, assistant director at the volunteer center, said the social issues addressed each year are advised by a board of students to ensure they are relevant to students. 

“They all make decisions about what we choose moving forward because we want issues that are relevant to (students) and what they’re passionate about,” Drevon said. “We typically try to provide a balance, so hopefully in looking at our different issues you’ll see a different variety of working with animals, working in an urban setting, (and) working rurally.”

Laingsburg sophomore Jacob Danek traveled to St. Louis, Missouri to volunteer for the Nutritional Support for Health Recovery issue. Students volunteering at this location helped Food Outreach, a nonprofit organization, bring food to members of the community with a low income, and people suffering from HIV/AIDS or cancer.

“It felt so good to be giving back to the community,” Danek said. “We had a group of people who clicked well together and it was a fun time.”

This spring break was Danek’s first time volunteering through the Alternative Breaks Program. He plans on going again and encourages students who might be nervous about it to just do it.

“I was scared to go at first because I didn’t know what to expect,” Danek said. “But the program is amazing and they give you all the information. It’s a lot of fun. You get to give back and you get to spend your spring break doing a lot of good.”

Courtesy Photo | Mary Ellen Brandell Volunteer Center

Sophomore Stephanie Leaks and junior Kellie Hoehing help clean out and organize classrooms for the Urban Education issue with after-school program Beacon House in Washington D.C.

Saginaw senior Rachel Norman went with Danek as a site leader — a student who keeps track of budgets and schedules, aims to make everyone comfortable and leads reflections about the service. This is Norman’s sixth time going on an Alternative Break and her fourth time as a site leader.

“The main goal of Alternative Breaks at CMU is to make sure the program is accessible to everyone,” Norman said, adding that a key part of the program is being educated about the issues before volunteering. 

“It sets us apart from other volunteering programs and it makes a sustainable change in the community,” Norman said. “That’s what we really strive for instead of just going to a place for a week, doing service, and not knowing anything about where we are serving or the people.”

Macomb junior Kellie Hoehing went to Washington, D.C. to volunteer for the Urban Education issue. Volunteers worked with after-school program Beacon House to help organize classrooms, decorate bulletin boards and work directly with kids.

This is Hoehing’s second time participating on an alternative break, but first time as a site leader.

“It’s a little more stressful (than being a participant), but I think you build some deeper connections with your community partners because you get more chances to talk with them about why they got involved,” Hoehing said.

Canton junior Shannon Huff went to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to work on the Urban Revitalizing issue. Volunteers worked with the city’s chapter of Rebuilding Together to help renovate homes for elderly and disabled community members to make their houses safer and more accessible. 

Huff said her experience this year was different than past volunteering experiences because participants got to work directly with a man whose house was being renovated.

“You get to see the impact and the difference you make immediately,” Huff said. “You could see how happy (the homeowner) was. He couldn’t thank us enough for helping him out.”

For students who are looking for volunteer opportunities before the end of the semester, April 14 is Be My Neighbor Day, during which the volunteer center will visit several nonprofits in the Mount Pleasant area. 

Drevon also said the Alternative Summer Break waitlist is still available, even though sign-ups are no longer open. The signup for two-day volunteering experiences in April is on March 21.

Students are welcome to walk into the volunteer center if they have questions at any time, Drevon said. She hopes students who are interested in volunteering continue to do so at a local level as well.

“You can do a week of service, but you can always do more when you get back,” Drevon said.