This Spring Break, 37 students will devote their time away from class and a minimal fee to go on service trips around the country in four student-coordinated programs. Comprising a range of projects and locations, the Alternative Break program aims to move students from the classroom to hands-on service programs for two weeks in the middle of the semester.
Though fewer participant applications were submitted this year and one more trip was offered, trip coordinator Matt Zmudka ’11 said that the groups are invested in all things Alt Break. “Every trip had enough applicants that they were able to pick a pool proven in pre-Break meetings to be really committed to what Alt Break means—doing service over break, living simply,” Zmudka said.
Expanding the program relies on student interest in developing projects. “The more trips there are, the more people will apply,” Zmudka said. “The program will stay strong if it has strong trips.”
Past Alt Breaks have included a range of causes. “There was a group last year that worked with veterans’ issues,” Zmudka said. “Native American issues, poverty, homelessness, education, health care, trails— these are all things that Alt Break is really well-equipped to serve if people just have the ideas.”
This break, Zmudka and Hannah Sagin ’11 will lead nine other volunteers to Potosi, Missouri to rebuild a two-mile stretch of the Ozark Trail Association’s 200-mile trail network, which was destroyed when the Taum Sauk dam collapsed in 2005.
Alisha Saville ’09 and Michelle Fournier ’09 are coordinating a similarly environmentally focused Alt Break sending ten students to build trails in national and state parks near Bethesda, California. “It can be a really be an intense experience for some people, in terms of being an intentional community and always being around the same people 24/ 7 for two weeks,” Saville said. “But at the same time I feel like it’s the program where many of the closest friendships are forged.”
This spring’s only indoor Alt Break will be lead by Macaela Holmes ’10 and Jordan Allison ’09 working with urban poverty in St. Louis, Missouri. The seven participants’ workload will include building a preschool playground, volunteering with the Red Cross and food banks, and helping to facilitate the annual CANstruction competition, which challenges St. Louis engineers and architects to build elaborate structures out of donated food.
The project came together largely with the help of David Molho ’82, who Holmes said responded to the coordinators “mass e-mailing” St. Louis alumni in the fall. Molho connected the coordinators with volunteer opportunities, an affordable food source, and the “swanky high school” where the group will stay.
Holmes hopes that the trip will change participants’ perception of their community. “The town of Grinnell has a thirty percent poverty rate, but around the campus you don’t see that,” Holmes said. “So going to St. Louis to look at their issues with poverty will help us hopefully become more aware of poverty in our own area.”
After participating in their first Alt Break, many students continue to be active in service participating in future Alt Breaks. Jacques Nguyen ’10, who has participated in Alt Break every year of his college career. “[It] was mind-expanding,” Nguyen said. “It really brings you back to the humanitarian aspect of education. It’s so humbling.”
Nguyen and Eric Skelnik ’09 are leading a nine-student Alt Break to Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky to focus on conservation. “I found that the best way for people to be conscious about this is to be physically and actively participating in something with a goal,” Nguyen said.
Organizing this trip while he was abroad last semester proved more stressful than coordinating a similar environmental trip to Watson, California last year. “I wish I had known the deadline earlier so I could have put in more effort, looked for more detailed things,” Nguyen said.
Another problem, according to Nguyen, is that students apply based on location instead of concern. “One thing that’s really discouraging to me is when applicants apply to a trip specifically for the location,” Nguyen said. “Apply because of the issues you’re interested in. That’s going to be the deciding factor, what you’re passionate about.”
The ReNew Orleans program began as an Alternative Break project three years ago but saw such an increase in applications and funding that the program became an independent student group.
According to ReNew coordinator Zach Schultz ’10, this year’s group of 14 participants, selected from an applicant pool of around 30, is relatively small. “It’s the smallest group we’ve ever taken because we didn’t have enough room down there to work,” Schultz said. “It’s Spring Break right now and a lot of volunteers are going down there.”
Progress in New Orleans’ reconstruction has shifted the program’s focus. “Last year it was completely gutting houses and tearing down houses,” Schultz said. “Now it’s all rebuilding and cleaning up. You get to see the families more now because they’re taking control over how it’s going to be rebuilt.”
The group will spend the first week of Spring Break aiding Hurricane Ike relief efforts in Galveston, TX before working with the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana, primarily through alumni in the organization.