April 2, 2007 -- Some U.Va. students went to tropical climates for spring break, but instead of lounging on the beach, they spent their week helping people.
This year, Alternative Spring Break, an independent student organization at U.Va., sent about 550 students in 30 groups to work on volunteer projects around the world.
“The projects range from invasive plant removal in Saguaro National Park, AZ, to microfinance projects with women in Honduras,” said Kenny Ott, president of Alternative Spring Break.
With two trips during the January term and two more scheduled for summer, 550 students participated in 18 international trips to 16 countries and 16 domestic trips to 12 states. This doubled the group’s size compared to 2006, when Alternative Spring Break made 17 trips involving about 250 students. Ott said U.Va. hosts one of the largest ASB programs in the country, run entirely by student volunteers.
“I believe this club best represents the dedication of U.Va. students to the issues and programs that they care most deeply about,” Ott said.
ASB trips are planned and led by site leaders, selected each April for the following year's trips. They work with the site leader mentor, who this year is Abbie Klinghoffer (Class of 2008), to determine the feasibility of the trips, eight of which were returning to previously visited places. Every project is organized with a community group at the site.
“These are usually schools or [nongovernmental organizations],” Ott said. “As our program becomes better established, we hope to continue going to the same places every year in order to build stronger relationships with the communities we visit.”
The trip costs range from less than $100 to more than $2,000, usually borne by the volunteer. This year, the U.Va. Bookstore, via the Student Council Scholarship Committee, funded five need-based scholarships of up to $500 each. ASB also supports participant-initiated research, providing 25 grants of $200 each to students who, with a faculty adviser's support, complete a research project combining their education with issues where they visit. Their research is presented on ASB’s Web site.
The group received nearly 900 applications.
Students may rank trip preferences, but the site leaders have the ultimate choice on who goes on their trip.
“They are instructed to choose a trip that has students from different years, majors, clubs at U.Va., living situations, motivations for applying and social types,” Ott said. “The result is usually a diverse group of students who have never met each other before.”
Volunteers benefit by not only getting to know people in other countries but also their fellow students.
“Until [my first] trip in March 2004, I had never really felt at home at U.Va.,” Ott said. “But there, 3,000 miles from Charlottesville, I grew closer in one week to 11 U.Va. students than I had in six months on Grounds. Furthermore, the work we did for the park opened my eyes to a new way of thinking about the environment that I hadn't considered before.”
Site leaders conduct educational meetings and discussions before and during each trip. For most international trips, the education focuses on local customs and political situations. Leaders also receive help from Amigos for Latin America, students, professors or local community members who talk to the students about the areas they’ll be visiting.
“We have found that the combination of a service project with meaningful, substantive reflection causes a lasting change in our volunteers,” Ott said. “It causes them to become more socially aware and more dedicated to service. Many return to Charlottesville to change their major or career choice.”
Ott himself shifted his goals from wanting to be a medical researcher focusing on heart disease to wanting to practice clinical medicine in poor areas outside the United States.
Jessalyn Elliott, 21, secretary of the ASB, believes its volunteers have the “power to change lives” through their efforts.
“I have returned to [Treasure Beach, Jamaica] each of my three years because I believe in the kids there and in the work that we do there,” she said.
Elliot, an English major pursuing a BA/MT in the Curry School of Education for secondary English education, has incorporated education into her volunteering.
“The experience has given me a new perspective on the importance of education, and my role as a teacher to meet kids where they are [with their] ability level and motivation,” Elliot said.
“I am continually astounded by how much ASB does for both the U.Va. community and those around the globe, and I am honored to do anything that I can to contribute to such a worthy cause,” said Laura Sparks, 20, the site leader for a trip to Costa Rica.
The art history major said she was raised with a sense of volunteering and contributing to her community.
“No matter how small your actions are, it is always good to feel like you are doing something to improve the world at large,” she said.
For more information on ASB, visit www.student.virginia.edu/~altbreak/index.html