Students Forgo Traditional Spring Break to Serve

More than 190 GW students volunteered in communities across the country, from New York City to the Cherokee Nation.

Immokalee Florida
Several GW students spent their spring break in Immokalee, Fla., working with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, an organization that advocates for equitable wages for farm workers.
March 20, 2013

Sometimes, a week can make a huge difference.

George Washington junior Sarah David discovered just that during an alternative spring break that took her to the center of the Cherokee Nation in Tahlequah, Okla., where she and a handful of GW students worked with American Indian children in Head Start, a program that helps them prepare for elementary school.

“I wasn’t sure if my weeklong stay would really make a huge difference with the children I worked with,” Ms. David said. “But seeing them look at me and tell me what I had taught them made me feel like what I was doing would last longer than a few days.”

After cleaning classrooms, making cut-outs and interacting with the children, GW students continued to immerse themselves in Cherokee culture, taking a tour of the government complex and food distribution center, which serves thousands who live in rural poverty, said junior Andrew Hori, one of the trip’s leaders.

“This trip not only led us to serve in tangible ways, but it also compelled us to reflect and really think about what intangible acts could also be considered service,” Mr. Hori said. “Between the direct service in which we engaged, the cultural activities and nightly reflections, the trip truly captures the notion of service-learning.”

The Oklahoma trip was one of eight alternative spring break programs offered through the Center for Civic Engagement and Public Service this year. In all, 190 students served in communities across the country, including Tuscaloosa, Ala.; Harlan County, Ky.; Gullah Nation, S.C.; Immokalee, Fla.; Joplin, Mo.; New Orleans; and New York City.

In New York City, students worked with homeless lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth at volunteer sites including Streetwork Project and New Alternatives. Junior Eric Schlabs said he was happy to “give homeless clients a ‘break’ where they can take their minds out of survival mode in order to just be young people.”

Working with youth and gaining their trust so they could open up about their experiences was one of the things senior Kristi Cole, the New York City trip leader, said she enjoyed most.

“The youth we served have experienced hardships and trauma beyond what we can ever imagine,” she said. “They have been told that they are not valuable and that they don’t matter. By showing up and showing a genuine interest in them we helped to demonstrate that they do matter and that people care about them and want them to be successful.”

And while Mr. Schlabs said he enjoyed the trip, he left angry but emboldened to effect change.

“Children are thrown out of their homes for something that isn’t a choice, and the parents are not held accountable,” he said. “Society doesn’t adequately provide a net for these youth. I am reevaluating my core beliefs and am excited to become further involved in activism related to the issue.”

Meanwhile, during the Appalachia trip to Harlan County, Ky., students did home repair and construction for an impoverished area. They didn’t just go in to do the work, though. They went in to listen, said Karissa Broderick-Beck, a senior and one of the trip’s leaders.

“The power of conversation is two-fold,” she said. “I validated someone’s innermost ideas on life in Appalachia, and the knowledge I gained from talking with them expanded my perceptions on the culture and how we, as GW students, can better serve it.”

In Immokalee, students learned about migrant workers, and how they fit into the food industry. They worked with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, an organization that advocates for equitable wages for farm workers. But the experience didn’t end when the break was over.

“Alternative breaks are not just a weeklong experience,” said Izzy Parilis, a trip leader. “I believe that our participants have really become active citizens committed to justice for farm workers and other marginalized communities.”

That long-lasting passion applies to Ms. Broderick-Beck, too.

“My life has been completely, positively changed by my alternative break experience,” she said. “I have made friends that will last a lifetime, and have found a place and culture I want to dedicate my life to serving and understanding. This kind of passion doesn’t just pop up out of nowhere. It’s cultivated creatively by learning through service among your peers. It’s an irreplaceable experience.”