Eight student groups spread out across the North American continent during the first week of Spring Break as part of this year's community service Alternative Spring Break (ASB) trips, sponsored by the McKeen Center for the Common Good. 81 students participated this year and their feedback on the 2011 ASB program has been overwhelmingly positive.
The scope of the programs was widely varied: student leaders took groups of their peers to Mississippi and West Virginia to work on affordable housing projects and learn about poverty in rural America; to Atlanta, Ga. to work in one of the largest refugee communities in the country; to Immokalee, Fla. to learn about the hardships of migrant workers; to an Oglala Sioux reservation in South Dakota to learn about the unique issues facing Native American communities; to Camden, N.J. to help out at the Urban Promise School; and to Guatemala to work on education initiatives for poor children in Guatemala City.
The ASB trips were a mix of past and new trips this year, according to Interim Director of the McKeen Center Sarah Seames. The groups collaborated with various local organizations, including several faith-based charity and community service groups, on various projects.
Macy Galvan '13 was a student leader on the trip to the migrant worker community in Florida. She described the variety of different projects the group undertook, including working with adult literacy and childcare programs, as well as with the local soup kitchen. The group also spent time with a political group working to advance the rights of migrant laborers.
Ivan Zhang '11 and Samantha Collins '11 led the first ASB trip to Atlanta and worked with refugees from places such as Iran, Cuba, Afghanistan and Iraq. The group worked with Jewish Family Career Services and Lutheran Services of Georgia, helping the Lutheran Services with clean up and a yard sale at a local church. According to Zhang, the trip included "home visits with some recent refugee families."
"We also had the opportunity to tutor with a school for refugee children called the Global Village School," he added.
"It was really great," said Collins. "We had a lot of good feedback from out participants and they are thinking about doing it again next year."
Grace Hyndman '11 and Elsie Thomson '11 led students to a former coal mining town in Appalachian West Virginia. The McKeen Center sponsored a similar trip several years ago, but Hyndman and Thomson reintroduced it this year. The group worked with Southern Appalachian Labor School (SALS) on an after-school community gardening program to set up the plots for the coming season, according to Thomson.
"We worked with a group called the Master Gardeners," said Hyndman. "They were able to give us a better insight into how gardens contribute to the community."
Morgan Taggart-Hampton '11 co-led the "Lives and Laws of the Oglala Sioux" ASB trip to South Dakota, where students worked with residents of the Pine Tree Indian Reservation. The group mainly worked with legal service groups in the area, including Dakota Plains Legal Services which, according to Taggart-Hampton, "handles a range of cases of low-income residents of Pine Ridge from child custody and domestic violence to disputes over tribal land."
The Dakota Plains Legal Services "has one managing attorney, a paralegal and a secretary," she added.
"We learned a lot from our volunteer organizations, our varied home-stay families, and the cultural events that we were allowed to attend," said Taggart-Hampton.
The McKeen Center has been sponsoring service-oriented Spring Break trips since 2002, and began calling the program Alternative Spring Break in 2004. The trips, designed and coordinated by student leaders with help from McKeen Center staff, provide participants with "an intensive public service experience while increasing their understanding of significant social and environmental problems," according to the McKeen Center website.
However, the ASB program is not merely a week-long experience; students apply to lead trips in the spring of the preceding year. Applicants propose the plan of the trip they want to lead—these are frequently reiterations of previous ASB programs, but can also be new trips. Once the trips are approved, student leaders receive leadership training from the McKeen Center.
ASB Coordinator Colin Joyner conducted weekly seminars with the leaders throughout the fall to "get them ready to run a service trip, and to run a group of students." The goal of the workshops, said Joyner, is to teach the leaders "how to run a community service trip and what community service is all about."
In November, students were invited to apply for the ASB trips. Once selected, the students had weekly meetings with their respective leaders to prepare for the trips in March.
"For people who haven't been a part of ASB, they think that it's just a one- week thing," said Seames. "It's really a full semester of focus on an issue."
"I talked to a student the other day who said that her experience was life changing and she has already decided she wants to go into service after graduating from Bowdoin," added Seames. "It isn't life-changing for every person, but I think that it's an important experience for everyone."