Alternative spring breaks offer students learning opportunities through service projects and activism
“It’s a little hard to call this a service project,” says Flannery Pearson-Clarke. “I think it’s better described as the best spring break ever.”
That’s high praise when you consider that the UNC Asheville Environmental Studies junior spent a week in Kentucky cutting sheet metal, sleeping at a converted school building and finding her inner construction worker.
Likewise, freshman Becky Baylor is glad that she canceled her plans to spend spring break at Disney World. Instead, she opted to work on a farm in Elon, N.C.
This year, more than 30 university students, faculty and staff elected to participate in alternative spring break programs, traveling outside of Asheville to experience firsthand what it means to be part of the solution for some of the South’s social and environmental issues.
Appalachian Service Project
This year marked the first time in recent memory that the Key Center for Community Citizen and Service Learning helped students organize and lead an alternative spring break. It’s a new strategy that may become common in the future.
“There are multiple benefits to student-led trips: Students develop leadership skills,” said Joseph Berryhill, Key Center director and associate professor of psychology at UNC Asheville. “They take ownership, and they feel more invested in it. They feel like ‘this is our trip, and it’s up to us to make it happen.’”
Months before Pearson-Clarke’s group went to Kentucky, they met multiple times to discuss the work they would do on their trip, and the need for it. For many, this was the first alternative spring break they had ever taken. For Pearson-Clarke, it was up to her to make it happen. She also received advice and assistance from Britta Volz, an AmeriCorps member who used to work for the Key Center.
The trip gave the students a stronger understanding of the economic hardships facing families in the coal mining region.
When they arrived on-site for their seven-day stay, they were split into two work teams and given instructions on how to install insulation and sheet metal skirting on mobile homes. The women admit that their construction skills were shaky at first, but they worked through the problems.
“We figured it out,” says Pearson-Clarke. “We worked together, and it helped that Emily (Neas, sophmore) had done some underpinning work like this before. So she was able to help us a lot,” said Pearson-Clarke. “And I learned that as a leader, I’m more of a cheerleader—encouraging people rather than telling them what to do.”
Food Justice Trip
Clarissa Fuentes of the Welsey Fellowship at UNC Asheville, organized a trip in which students visited a variety of businesses and organizations that are involved in the issue of hunger in the state.
They stayed at Redbud Farm near the town of Elon, N.C., which donates part of its crop to the Campus Kitchens program at Elon University. Campus Kitchens is a national non-profit that enables students to collect food donations from farms, stores and cafeteria leftovers, prepare it and deliver it to low-income people within their community.
At Redbud Farm, the students cut hundreds of pounds of potatoes, planted them in rows and then drove the tractor that covered them with soil. “It helped me understand all the work and processes of planting just one crop of potatoes,” says Harper Spires, a freshman. “I really enjoyed getting into farm work and the hard labor. I grew up in a city and moved to Hillsborough, N.C., so it’s not really something I’ve ever had a chance to do.”
For some students like Zachary Stroupe, a junior who is involved with Wesley Fellowship, the trip held a spiritual meaning. They also visited a church community garden.
Mountain Justice Spring Break
A third group of 14 spring breakers spent time in the town of Appalachia, Va., learning about the environmental and economic effects of mountaintop removal coal mining. They toured towns that have been abandoned since mountaintop removal became common practice, and visited sites where mountains had been completely flattened by the mining process.
The trip was affiliated with Mountain Justice, The Rrenew Collective and Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards.
“We visited Black Mountain near the border of Kentucky and Virginia, and you could look out and see a ‘reclaimed site,’ which was basically huge pile of rubble with a little bit of grass growing on it,” says Macon Foscue, a junior majoring in Interdisciplinary Studies. “It used to be a forested mountain ridge, just like you would find around here. But it just so happens that they have coal in their geologic formations.”
Beyond the visual and environmental scars, the students witnessed the economic impact of this practice, which requires fewer workers and tends to leave ghost towns in its wake once all coal has been extracted.
During the week, 150 students from more than 10 universities participated in workshops on various forms of environmental activism, as well as in local enrichment programs including home repair projects for residents and work on a community center garden.
What They Took Home
For some students, alternative spring breaks are an opportunity to spend downtime with friends doing good. For others, it’s a turning point.
“These experiences can be epiphanies for some students—they are surprised by how enriching helping others can be,” said Berryhill. “Then they realize, ‘Why just spend a week doing this? Why not spend a semester doing this? Or a lifetime?’”
Spires has already made plans to work a few days each week on a farm near her home in Hillsborough. Foscue, who is co-chair of Active Students for a Healthy Environment, says that many of the organization’s members who attended the Mountain Justice trip are fired up to help UNC Asheville decrease its energy consumption.
As for Pearson-Clarke’s group who insulated mobile homes—every student interviewed for this article says they plan on devoting the first full week of March 2013 to another alternative spring break.
Sorry, Myrtle Beach and Disney, these students have bigger plans.
Visit the Key Center to learn more about the Community Engaged Scholars program.