Students Give Back, Find Fulfillment Via Alternative Spring Breaks

For many college students, spring break is a time to hit the beach and have some fun in the sun.

For Caleb Sloan, an architectural science major at Western Kentucky University, spring break is a time to pound a few nails and help build something that will last much longer than a week.

Through a program overseen by United Way, Sloan, 22, is among the thousands of students across the country who plan to participate this year in what’s known as “Alternative Spring Break.”

[Above: Students tour Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, during a United Way Alternative Spring Break in 2013.]

Specifically, Sloan will join about 16 other students in El Paso, Texas, in early March to help build three-bedroom homes for families in need. The effort is led by United Way of El Paso County and the Lower Valley Housing Corporation; it is one of many alternative spring break options offered across the country, many of them overseen by United Way.

When Sloan first got involved in United Way’s Alternative Spring Break, or ASB, back in 2014, he thought of it as a way of benefiting others. However, students who participate in the program end up benefiting as well.

“A lot of times when you do service-oriented [work], you think that you’re going to give back,” Sloan says. “But in reality, at the end of the trip, with the other volunteers and the people you’re helping, they give back to you more than you ever thought.”

For instance, Sloan says, in building houses for families in El Paso, volunteers get the satisfaction of working alongside those who will eventually call the houses home.

“You’re there with the family the whole time, and you know they’re going to live in it once it’s complete, so that is really cool,” he says. “And they won’t be in debt from paying to build it.”

Indeed, the Lower Valley Housing Corporation offers families the opportunity to own a three-bedroom house at $64,500 with no down payment, provided they help build 65 percent of their future home.

Yet, the way Sloan sees it, volunteers build more than just homes — they build relationships.

ASB participants at the Lower Valley Housing Corporation site in El Paso
ASB participants at the Lower Valley Housing Corporation site in El Paso

“What makes it so much fun is there are all these other kids doing the same thing you are; nobody knows anybody,” Sloan says. “You learn so much about yourself, and you grow really close to one another in a week.”

An added bonus for Sloan is that he gets practical experience in his field of study.

This kind of hands-on experience and fulfillment is a key reason for having college students perform volunteer service during ASB, program leaders say.

This year, United Way ASB nonprofit partner Break A Difference is sending more than 800 students to nine cities across the U.S. — from Baltimore to Tucson, Ariz., and from Newark, N.J., to New Orleans. Volunteer work will address issues ranging from disaster relief and recovery to hunger and homelessness.

Historically, about 4,200 students have participated in United Way ASB programs since the organization started offering them in 2006. Early efforts focused on disaster relief and recovery in response to Hurricane Katrina.

Brian Pham, co-founder of Break A Difference, says that while he hopes these experiences shape students, he harbors no illusions that they will be able to eliminate the pressing problems they volunteer their time to addressing.

“They’re not going to solve these issues in one week. That’s not something we sell or have our volunteers expect,” Pham says. “But what we do expect and what we do see in our data is, over the course of the week, when [our volunteers] are able to make a meaningful impact and meet students from all over the U.S. with a shared mission, they go back to their communities wanting to do more for others for the rest of their lives.”

This outcome — a long-term commitment to service — is one reason universities encourage their students to get involved in ASBs.

“As a university, part of our mission statement is [that] we want students who have a strong commitment to service,” says Jennifer Turner, civic engagement coordinator at the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut. “So offering these trips and other community service experiences is in line with [our] overall mission to do community service.”

Now in its 10th year of engaging students through ASB, the University of Bridgeport is partnering with Break A Difference. This year, the university is sending students to two ASB sites — one in Baltimore to work at homeless shelters and food pantries in areas affected by last summer’s protests, and the other at an orphanage in Haiti.

The details of what the work in Haiti involves are unknown until students arrive on site — and that’s by design.

“One of the things about alternative spring break is we don’t even tell our students where they will be going until after they’ve been selected for a trip,” Turner says. “Part of that is because we want students who are committed to service and aren’t just looking for a school vacation; we want students who are committed to the idea of service and are committed to doing it no matter what that looks like or entails.”

Although students are volunteering their time through ASBs, those who do so with Break A Difference have to somehow raise $395 to participate and must find their own way to the site. However, once they’re on site, Break A Difference covers volunteers’ housing and meals and arranges several outings to help students gain a better sense of the communities they will be serving.

Still, it’s no day at the beach.

In Baltimore, for instance, students will sleep on cots in a gymnasium at a local Boys and Girls Club. Pham says the makeshift lodging is meant to keep program costs down. And organizers do their best to help students keep things in perspective.

“We tell them and educate them that in the communities they serve, these accommodations are sometimes better than [those] the families we’re serving have,” Pham says.●

Jamaal Abdul-Alim is a contributing writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity.