Volunteers Empower Communities Worldwide

Alternative break participants tackle environmental, economic issues, amass 6,000 service hours.

January 15, 2014

GW students passing buckets of water while on an alternative break trip in Guatemala

Alternative Break students in Guatemala transport water to cisterns at the construction site of a sustainable Mayan technical school. (Photo by Genevieve Croker/Long Way Home)

By James Irwin

One hundred and thirty-eight students and 12 faculty and staff learning partners compiled 6,000 hours of volunteer work during GW’s Alternative Winter Break program last week.

The annual service trips took George Washington University volunteers to communities in Nicaragua, Guatemala, Puerto Rico, Costa Rica, Los Angeles and New Orleans. The six destinations are part of a record 17 alternative break trips the Center for Civic Engagement and Public Service is hosting in 2014.

“We have seen a real demand from students -- each year, the program has a waiting list,” said Sara Gruppo, director of the Center for Civic Engagement and Public Service. “The expansion of the program this year was really fueled by our students’ desire to understand and make positive impacts in communities throughout the U.S. and world.”

Each GW group worked alongside locally based organizations and tackled specific issues in the community.

Volunteers in San Juan Comalapa, a Mayan village in the Guatemalan highlands, partnered with Long Way Home on a sustainability project at the village technical school. The facility serves as a primary educational center for the community. Volunteers painted walls in classrooms, stockpiled water reserves, mixed cement and received a weeklong education on sustainability topics.

“They make their walls out of tires pounded with dirt, so we sledgehammered tires,” said Mary Kate O’Connell, a junior in the Elliott School of International Affairs. “We made flower beds. We cut glass bottles to make window panes.”

Sustainability was a familiar theme for the Latin American groups. In Las Marias, Puerto Rico, 26 GW volunteers spent the week working on an organic permaculture farm. The host organization, Plenitud, runs the farm and teaches organic farming techniques.

“The experience at Plenitud is extremely symbiotic,” said Columbian College of Arts and Sciences senior Susie Charlop. “For example, we visited a site that uses farming to rehabilitate individuals struggling from substance abuse. One of the main things that Plenitud teaches is that sustainability goes beyond caring for the earth -- it requires being kind to the community.”

Economic empowerment through eco-friendly construction was another common thread. Coffee is one of Costa Rica’s most popular exports, and GW volunteers, working alongside Green Communities, helped build a greenhouse and fertilize 200 coffee plants, said Columbian College senior and trip leader Kirk Wilson.

“There’s a huge market for organic coffee,” Mr. Wilson’s trip co-leader, Columbian College junior Frannie Skardon said. “So what we were doing helps the environment because the land is used much more when it’s organic, but it also keeps the farms producing longer.”

In El Manzano Uno, a small, underserved coastal community in northern Nicaragua, volunteers partnered with Waves of Hope to finish construction on the villag­e’s first high school (a project GW Alternative Break participants broke ground on in 2013) and participated in discussions about creating sustainable and healthy communities.

“It’s rewarding to see tangible progress,” Columbian College junior Marshall McMurry said. “Perhaps more importantly, however, we encourage our participants to reflect on their experience. Discussion and introspection are crucial to the Alternative Break Program.”

In the United States, volunteers traveled to New Orleans to help construct homes for residents displaced by Hurricane Katrina. They assisted the organization Rebuilding Together, which rebuilds and restores low-income homes. The group also met with Tulane University President Scott Cowen (M.B.A '72, D.B.A. '75) who led Tulane’s post-Katrina recovery.

“During the trip we talked about the lasting consequences of the storm on the city,” Columbian College senior Michael Cuttler said. “We discussed how we can help those who aren’t as fortunate as us, helping them rebuild and raising awareness.”

More than 1,900 miles to the west, a group of 13 GW volunteers partnered with several organizations in Los Angeles, including the St. Francis Center and HomeBoy Industries, and worked with at-risk youth.

“We got to see the power of second chances,” said Columbian College junior Alexandria Thompson. “We saw the challenge of rehabilitating and rehumanizing people while looking at issues of homelessness and gang violence. It was proof we can be educated by these trips.”

GW Alternative Breaks has 11 trips planned for the spring, including one to Joplin, Mo., to assist residents rebuilding in the aftermath of the devastating May 2011 tornado.

“The programs bring to life the daily challenges and successes that communities in need face,” Ms. Gruppo said. “That allows our students to make an immediate impact while reflecting and growing personally.”