‘Alternative Spring Break’ Sends Student Volunteers Where Help Is Needed

March 2, 2023
Students walking the mountains of the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

Members of UVA’s “Alternative Spring Break” organization spend the week volunteering with non-profits to improve national or state parks, or providing service to communities that need assistance. (Contributed photo)

Spring break marks the halfway point of the semester, a time when University of Virginia students take advantage of the time off to relax and prepare for the remainder of the term.

Some students may travel to tropical destinations, visit family and friends, or simply catch up on sleep. But the participants of Alternative Spring Break have other plans.

Alternative Spring Break, or ASB, is an entirely student-led service organization that dispatches civic-minded Wahoos across the country to volunteer with non-profit organizations.

“It’s a completely self-made trip,” ASB Co-President Julia Moschella said. “The site leaders reach out to their site contact, set up the dates, find flights, find lodging and create the itinerary for what fun activities they’re going to do around their volunteering.”

Moschella, a fourth-year kinesiology major, got involved with ASB during her first year at UVA. When she realized she had no plans for spring break, Moschella applied for an ASB trip in Savannah, Georgia, not knowing what to expect.

“I was very drawn to what ASB had to offer in terms of different levels of engagement,” she said. “I’d done service with some other groups prior, and it kind of felt like we did the community service and then completely moved on. 

Portrait of Morgan Butler and Julia Moschella on Grounds
The organization’s leaders, Morgan Butler and Julia Moschella, intentionally put students into travel groups where they don’t know anyone. That means when the students return to Grounds after their service, they’ll have made new friends. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

“I really liked the fact that ASB was a little bit deeper than that.”

While one of the main goals of ASB is to serve the community, it is also founded on educating participants about the regions they’ll visit.

Fourth-year global public health and medical anthropology major Morgan Butler works alongside Moschella as the other co-president of ASB. Like Moschella, Butler has been participating in ASB since her first year at the University, allowing her to serve in sites like Sequoia & Kings Canyon, California.

“ASB is really intentional with how we do service because of the learning component, which is a major part of the trip,” Butler said.

Before traveling, each ASB group learns about the location where they will serve. For example, environmental trips focus on the site’s ecosystem and social issues affecting the area. On the trip, each group will participate in a nightly reflection on the service they completed that day.

The planning process for ASB begins almost a year before the trip. The organization appoints site leaders to plan and lead the trips. Typically, site leaders have attended an ASB trip the previous year and use their experience to pass down knowledge to the newbies. 

Two photos of students doing community service work in national parks out west
The travel groups that get paired with environmental non-profits often work on improving park trails and infrastructure, or helping control invasive plants. (Contributed photos)

The trips led by ASB this year fall under two categories: environmental and housing. Environmental trips to national or state parks typically involve outdoor, manual labor, ranging from trail maintenance to controlling invasive species.

Housing trips support the needs of the low-income communities and have partnered with organizations like Habitat for Humanity to build or improve homes.

Once students apply and are accepted, the site leaders work with placement chairs to create the groups. There’s one catch: The groups are created so attendees start the trips as strangers.

“A cool part of ASB is the idea that nobody knows each other on the trip,” Butler said. “So you’re going to go on a trip with nine other random people to meet different people around the University.”

On her first ASB trip, Moschella met fellow students she is still friends with over three years later.

ASB is embarking on adventures in seven different locations across the United States this spring break. The environmental trips will land in destinations like Moab, Utah, and Joshua Tree, California. The only housing trip this year will be to New Orleans to work with Habitat for Humanity.

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While ASB completes service projects off of Grounds, the group has another goal in mind: to bring the service back to Charlottesville.

“When you volunteer with ASB, you’re intentionally learning about the place you are serving in and then reflecting on that service experience,” Butler said. “But you also carry the lens that you’re going to return to Charlottesville with the lessons you learned to continue the service.”

To serve the local community, ASB offers free, shorter trips during the fall to benefit Charlottesville and the surrounding communities.

To Moschella, ASB is a great way to travel during spring break while being a part of something bigger.

“I went to Moab Arches National Park last year, and for sure, I could’ve gone there for vacation, done whatever I wanted and had a good time,” she said. “But since I went with ASB, I have knowledge about wildlife, vegetation, and how the National Park Service works.

“You just get so much more out of the experience when you aren’t just a tourist.”

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