Every student looks forward to spring break. It’s a week off from school to spend at the beach with your friends, hiking with your family, or just relaxing after the stress of classes. My first college spring break combined the friendship, outdoors, and spiritual grounding from all three of those activities, but the greater impact was so much more. Today, I want to share my Alternative Service Break experience since applications recently went live at my school. My hope is that I can convince you to change not only your life, but the lives of those less fortunate with only one week of your love and time.
I first heard about programs that send kids on a week of service over their spring break when a group of students were on The Ellen DeGeneres Show for that very reason. I think it’s a fantastic idea and I discovered first hand the difference it can make in the local community.
My service break trip was to Guyan Valley in rural Appalachian West Virginia. I went with four other girls and a faculty advisor, but let’s face it- when she wasn’t being our mother figure (making sure we were being safe and had enough to eat and everything), she was basically one of us.
We worked with the Appalachia Service Project to repair substandard housing in the region. This is an incredible Christian ministry organization working tirelessly to make homes warmer, safer, and drier while inspiring hope and love in their volunteers, centers, and communities.
Our task for the week was to build and put up supports under a sinking home addition as well as install underpinning around the back side of the house. The whole “building supports” and being in a crawlspace “under a sinking floor” thing freaked us out a little when we first got our assignment, but once we sat down and went over the plans with a member of the ASP staff we all felt so much better.
I’m not going to lie, up until the first night at the ASP center I was absolutely dreading this trip. Why did I sign up to do construction with these people I don’t even know? Will we end up being friends? Am I on my own for this one?
Let me tell you something.
I could not have been more wrong.
I absolutely love my team. They are some of the most genuine people I’ve ever met and we bonded over those few days in a way that you just can’t given any other situation. Spending 24 hours a day, 7 days a week with them, many of those hours in holes underneath a house, will really bring a group together 😉 They all taught me something valuable and I love each and every one of them.
Here’s what went on during our week.
Kicked out of the dorms.
Our trip didn’t start until Saturday night, but the dorms closed Saturday morning. Since Rachael and I would be stuck for the day, we crashed Kara’s house. We made brunch, watched Gilmore Girls (#hooked), attempted to complete some homework (#failed), and just hung out for the day.
For dinner, we met up with the rest of the girls at Kerri’s (our faculty advisor) house where we would spend the night. Yay sleepover!
On the road!
To help break up the drive from Raleigh to the West Virginia center, we made a pit stop at Pilot Mountain. We did some light “hiking” and took a lot of photos! This brought out the adventure in all of us and started to bring us closer together.
Arrived at ASP Guyan Valley Center!
We shared the center with the staff and a few other schools for the week. It reminded me of camp: a bunch of different people sharing bunk-beds and hall showers and eating meals family-style. It was so great to be surrounded by people of such different backgrounds, all coming together to serve others.
Begin the work week!
We woke up each morning to the staff blasting upbeat music in the hallway and headed to the common room for breakfast with the rest of the center. After breakfast, we loaded our tools and other materials for the day into the van as well as packed lunch for ourselves and the family whose house we were working on. We’d work from about 8 am to 4 pm with a lunch break in the middle.
In true site manager fashion, Kara, coffee and plans in hand (left) // Close quarters=team bonding (right)
Everything’s more fun with a saw (left) // Installing the underpinning around the home (right)
When we finished for the day, we would race back to the center and sprint for the showers since there were only a few for basically a million muddy, sweaty kids. We’d all get together for dinner, do our chore for the day (each group had a different chore to help maintain the center), have group reflection, and then relax. We played a lot of cards and had a lot of fun just hanging out each night.
Listening to a local historian’s presentation. Love Rachael’s face in the corner 😀
Oh, and did I mention we were completely disconnected?
That’s right, in such a rural, mountainous area there was no cell signal to be found. Now I’m not the stereotypical, nose-glued-to-the-phone millennial, so it wasn’t too big of a deal for me. Actually, I really, really loved it. A week without Facebook, Snapchat, texting, and email was so great. In fact, I put off reconnecting with the world a little while longer even once we were back in the reach of cell towers on the way home.
Cracker Barrel Squad on the road home
What happens in Dairy Queen, stays in Dairy Queen.
This was also beneficial for a completely different reason. I’ve been working on overcoming social anxiety and not being able to use my phone as a crutch when social situations become awkward was hard, but a good lesson to learn. You turn people off when you’re hunched over a screen, but welcome them when you sit back and take in the world on your own. Not having such a blatant obstacle in my everyday life is something I tried to keep up once I got back to school.
It also taught me how to be comfortable in my own skin.
As the title suggests, we were basically under a house all day. In the mud. In the cobwebs. We wore baggy jeans and muddy boots and old t-shirts. The majority of of us left our makeup bags at home. But we didn’t need to be in a fashionable outfit with our hair perfectly styled and our lipstick flawlessly applied. We were truly ourselves that week.
I’m very self-conscious about going out without at least mascara on, so this part was a bit of a personal struggle. But, as I said before, there was no phone to hide in. My team could really lean on each other for anything and everything that week.
#SquadGoals (left) // Amber and I on site! (right)
Overall, spring break was eye-opening.
It was being honest, raw, and vulnerable with my team, which inevitably brought us together.
It was being compassionate and understanding with the family at their home.
It was being open-minded in an area that doesn’t really seem like much from the outside.
Let me tell you something, and this is the most important take away: Rural Appalachian West Virginia is an absolutely incredible population. Everyone we met was so honest and accepting. They were the most generous group of people I’ve ever met; they would give us all they had and then some. They didn’t wallow in self-pity because they had love and pride for their family, friends, neighbors, community, and themselves.
That week without cell service, contact with friends and family, and even make-up helped me to see how good I have it. There are moments where I can’t see anything positive about my life, but now I reflect back on what I learned from these people. They focus on the now. Watching the family whose house we were working on grow more and more comfortable with us was a great feeling. They truly appreciated what we were doing, but we are forever thankful for what they taught us about life.
It’s one of the best feelings to look at something and say “I worked on that and just look at it now!”
I still rave about this trip and hands down recommend it to anyone. Look for a similar experience at your own school! There are so many different trips to go on from in-state, to domestic, to international.
But keep one thing in mind. As our team leader, Kara, said in her first team email, this wasn’t a glamorous trip with exotic sites and foreign food, but it was absolutely life changing. We were able to make a difference for a family so close to our own home.
This was one of the best spring breaks I’ve ever had and I wish everyone could have the amazing experiences that we did.
Reuniting with the girls last week after coming back to school from summer break. I’m so blessed to have them in my life!
Our faculty advisor also wrote a post on her blog about this trip a few months ago! She has a great perspective and really acted as our rock for the week. Love you Kerri <3
~Have you ever done an Alternative Spring Break? Did I convince you to look into doing so? 😉