This was originally published in August of 2016. I have updated it with a few new pictures (and I apologize in advance that some are kind of dark)!
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. Spring semesters are notoriously rough, but spring break seems to come at just the right time. My first college spring break combined the friendship, outdoors, and spiritual grounding from all of the typical ways of spending this break, but the greater impact was so much more. Today, in honor of my second alternative service break being only days away (!!), I wanted to reshare this first experience that changed my life and how I see the world. 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 first service break trip was to Guyan Valley in rural Appalachian West Virginia. I went with four other girls and a faculty advisor, but really when she wasn’t busy being our mom 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 “put up building supports” and crawl around “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 the staff member on our project, 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. I didn’t want to go, I regretted putting down my deposit, and I was absolutely terrified for what I had gotten myself into. 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? I thought it was going to be one long week.
But let me tell you something.
I could not have been more wrong.
The first time we actually started work on our job site, my mindset started changing drastically. We worked hard, but we had so much fun together. I absolutely love my team and I knew that by the end of the first workday! 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 for a full week together, many of those hours in holes and mud under 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 dinner, we met up with the rest of the girls at Kerri’s (our faculty advisor) house where we would spend the night. Who said sleepovers stop in middle school?
On the road!
To help break up the drive from Raleigh, NC to the West Virginia center, we made a pit stop at Pilot Mountain. We did some light what-I-probably-shouldn’t-call-hiking-but-will-anyway hiking and took a ton of pictures! This little stop 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 as there were a bunch of different people sharing bunk-beds and community bathrooms and eating meals family-style. It was so great to be surrounded by people of such different backgrounds, all coming together for a common goal of serving others.
We may have been in the mountains, but we always support the Pack on game day!
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 schools. 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)
Lunch break! (left) // our entry point for a lot of the week 😀 (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 girls. An hour or two later, we’d all get together for dinner, do our chore for the day (each group had a different one to help maintain the center), have group reflection, and then relax. We played a lot of cards and had so much 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.
What’s a road trip without a Cracker Barrel stop?
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. With the bursting pipes. 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 everything, 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.
If you take one thing away from everything I’ve just said, let it be this: 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. Getting to get to know them was amazing and I truly wish everyone could forget their stereotypes and really understand these people.
That week without cell service, contact with friends and family, and even make-up helped me to see how good I have it. Of course I have days where nothing seems to go right, 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 everything 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. For my second service break, I’m flying out to California with a larger team to promote sustainability and renewable energy and install solar panels in underserved communities. Definitely keep an eye out for a post on that in the next few weeks!
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.
Our faculty advisor also wrote a post on her blog about this trip as well! She has a great perspective and really acted as our rock for the week. Love you Kerri <3
See the original post here.
~Have you ever done an Alternative Spring Break? Did I convince you to look into doing so? 😉