What do think of when you hear the words "spring break"? Hitting the beach in Florida? Or the slopes in Colorado? For many students, spring break means social activism, all because of an innovative program called Alternative Break.
A Different Kind of Break
Break Away is a non-profit group that help schools and community organizations develop their own Alternative Break programs. Alternative Break is a program that places teams of high school and college students in communities to work on service projects during their summer, fall, winter or spring breaks.
These projects are located everywhere from rural Mississippi to the inner city of Los Angeles to the small towns of northern Mexico.
In the process of working on short-term projects for community agencies, students learn about issues like poverty, racism, literacy and the environment. Students have tutored migrant farm workers in Florida, promoted health education on a Native American reservation in Arizona, and assisted adults with disabilities in Louisiana.
The Alternative Break Experience
Alternative Break programs can offer an up-close-and-personal approach to community service. Students travel all over the country and live in the community they serve. As a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Junirose Zaide spent her Alternative Break living in a renovated homeless shelter in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. "We worked with the homeless, renovating and coordinating with other shelters, feeding and providing shelter for those in need," Zaide says.
Even though the break can be brief, it's typically varied and intense. "There was nothing routine about the job. It was something different everyday," says Alternative Break alum David Osta. During his freshman year at the University of Illinois, Osta worked in Detroit, Michigan, with Save our Sons and Daughters (SOSAD), a program to prevent urban youth violence. His project took him from local schools, where he promoted a peace curriculum, to juvenile prisons, where he spoke to inmates.
Benefits for Now ... And Later
Like any vacation, Alternative Break gives you a chance to see the country. In addition to living in a new community, students have time to go sightseeing in their area of service. But Alternative Break offers many more benefits you don't get from a typical spring break.
With Alternative Break, you work closely with a group of students and get a chance to work on your team-building skills. "I started out the week in a group of people I didn't know, and ended the week with a lot of close friends," Zaide says. "It's a great chance to build a network of people who share a vision of social change."
While you work with that team, you explore social action and learn about the world at large. "I got a new perspective on the world and I got a new perspective on people," Osta says.
"It definitely gets students' feet wet in community service and gets the momentum going," says Amanda Newton, a former Illinois Alternative Break board member.
And you can carry these benefits with you, long after you finish your break. Alternative Break offers an opportunity to explore new interests - and perhaps even a new career path.
After her break, Zaide went back to Madison and became active in a local shelter. She now works for AmeriCorps educating urban school children about asthma, and she's planning a career in public health. Osta similarly built a future on his experience. He followed up his Alternative Break with a semester-long service-learning project in Ecuador and now teaches elementary school for Teach For America in Washington, D.C.
If you're interested in an amazing break experience, check with your student organization office to see if your school offers an Alternative Break program. If it doesn't, check out DoSomething.org, which helps students organize their passions and put them into action. Or check out the national information center on Alternative Spring Break. Then get ready for a vacation you'll never forget.