A Break for the Better

January 11, 2010

Students pose with the president and first lady of Guatemala.

Students pose with the president and first lady of Guatemala.

The 20 students and staff who spent winter break using recycled materials to construct elementary schools in San Juan Comalapa, Guatemala, knew they were participating in an alternative winter break program. But they couldn’t have known how exceptional it would truly be.

The group, which met Sandra Torres de Colom, first lady of Guatemala, at a recent event at the Graduate School of Political Management, had been invited to visit her and her husband, Álvaro Colom Caballeros, during their trip.

“We were always hoping this would come together, but it did not come to fruition until our last day volunteering,” says Shannon Donahue, freshmen service and alternative breaks coordinator in the Office of Community Service, who went on the trip to Guatemala.

The group attended a speech by the president in a poor area of Guatemala City and had a chance to interact with the president and first lady, who asked the members about their experiences on the trip and thanked them for their service.

The first lady then invited the group, which was spending the night in the town of Panajachel, to visit the palace the following morning and contacted the mayor of Panajachel and asked him to take the group to dinner and give it a tour of Lake Atitlan, the deepest lake in Central America.

The group, which was one of six that participated in the third annual Alternative Winter Break program at GW, spent the bulk of its trip partnering with the Guatemala-based nonprofit Long Way Home to build the school Tecnico Maya.

“The school is being constructed using sustainable techniques such as packed tires and earth bags,” says Ms. Donahue, who adds that pollution is a particular problem in Guatemala. “The goal is to educate people about this alternative building method, which is extremely affordable and green.”

The volunteers also had the opportunity to interact with children who will attend the school when it opens next year, Ms. Donahue says.

In addition to the 20 volunteers who traveled to Guatemala, 50 visited New Orleans, 20 went to Honduras, 14 traveled to Costa Rica, 27 went to Puerto Rico and 14 visited Panama. The nearly 150 volunteers was the “largest group of students to participate in an Alternative Breaks Trip,” Ms. Donahue says.

“Going on the New Orleans trip was truly the highlight of my semester,” says freshman Cheyenne Brewbaker, who says her expectations for the trip were “completely surpassed.”

“I made friends on the trip that I will care about forever, I learned about Hurricane Katrina and its devastating effects on the people of New Orleans and, most of all, I made a difference to a few of the thousands of families who are currently without homes,” she says.

Sophomore Melissa Dishart decided to attend the trip to New Orleans, which partnered with Habitat for Humanity, because she wanted to learn more about how New Orleans has changed since she last visited in February 2007.

“We had an amazing trip together, but there is still so much work to be done even nearly six years after Hurricane Katrina,” she says. “The hope to rebuild comes from volunteers much like the ones on Alternative Breaks from GW.”

Tim Savoy, a junior, also did not anticipate the magnitude of the devastation in New Orleans.

“I expected to meet a community still recovering from the worst hurricane in the history of the U.S. but that was headed in the right direction,” he says. “My hope was to impact this community but also to have this community impact me.”

Several students say they hoped to return to New Orleans, with sophomore Caitlin Figg adding a sense of immediacy. “I would go on this trip again in a heartbeat,” she says.

But junior Brianna Williams might have put it best. “The trip was thebomb.com,” she says. “It’s something for everyone interested in community service!”