I have a serious confession to make. I am one of uninitiated who have never taken part in the notorious wanton revelry seen in America at the juncture of February and March known infamously as “Spring Break.” I, as most red blooded Americans, would love nothing more than to get inebriated and party all day on a beach surrounded by extremely attractive young people. Being from Michigan, however, where spring time is usually 20-30 degrees with 3 inches of snow, I would need to travel pretty far to reach one of these sandy bacchanals.
Growing up, I just didn’t have it like that so I kept my frigid behind in Michigan. By the time I was about to graduate college, I was not only tired of not having a traditional Spring Break but I was also tired of not being able to travel anywhere at all. That’s when I learned about an amazing opportunity at my school to take a week-long trip during Spring Break to volunteer across the country. “It isn’t coeds in bikinis but it’ll do,” I thought. It turned out that my Alternative Spring Break was a far more fun and positive experience than I imagine any Florida beach could be!
The Alternative Spring Break (ASB) is an initiative that many non-profit organizations, community groups and schools have adopted in order to inspire lifelong active citizenship through service. This is achieved by working with high schools and universities to send their student population all across the country to volunteer. The issues tackled by ASB programs can range from social justice to environmental stewardship. My ASB trip sent me and a group of my classmates to Soddy-Daisy, TN to work with the Cumberland Trail Conference on building and maintaining a section of the Cumberland Trail, located on the western side of the Appalachian Mountains. My university, with the support of the non-profit Break Away, arranged this volunteer excursion and for a small fee I was transported, housed, and fed during my trip!
When our group arrived in Tennessee, there were students from other universities all over America lodging with us! They were going to be assisting on the Cumberland trail as well. During that week I bonded not only with the group of students from my university who I went on this trip with, but also these other university students who were living with us. We told stories, played games, watched movies, played acoustic music, danced (a lot), shared s ‘mores by a bonfire and did pretty much every other cliché camp activity you saw on the Nickelodeon series Bug Juice outside of singing “Kumbaya”. And you know what? I loved every minute of it. After that week I knew I had a special bond with those people I met at the Cumberland Trail Conference. No matter how far apart in the world we may be, we will always share the memories of those after-work cuddle puddles, Maine style whoopie pies and late night games of Apples to Apples. These experiences were worth every cent.
In addition to the amazing human interaction I experienced on this trip, I was actually able to commit my time to working towards something I deeply care about; accessibility to our natural world. By assisting in building trails I have allowed greater access to the mountains and woods of southern Tennessee and the Appalachian mountains. Accessibility to nature is something that is extremely important to create if we ever want people to understand its value and beauty. Sometimes the best way to convince someone that something is worth saving and preserving is to have them experience it firsthand. Making accessible trails is a great way to accomplish this.
My ASB experience was tremendously fun but it also had its challenges. Volunteer travel can be a very difficult experience and if in the future you decide to do something like this for your Spring Break, expect to face some trials. On your trip you might have to spend large amounts of time working, traveling, socializing and living with people who you may not know or who may have a differing world view. There is no guarantee you will get along with these people either. Learning how to cooperate, communicate and work harmoniously with people who are different from you is an important life skill and you will certainly be tested in this. Another challenge could be your work environment. During my trip, I was doing hard manual labor with heavy tools on rough, sloped terrain. This was at times very physically challenging. Other participants might face different types of challenges depending on the service they perform and/or where they serve. A person working with terminally ill children may not face the physical challenges I had but they would certainly face emotional challenges. Participants who are used to being surrounded by a certain socioeconomic class might feel very uncomfortable living and working in the areas of New Orleans still ravaged by Hurricane Katrina. You might also be challenged on your beliefs, on your politics, on your prejudices and on your knowledge. If you are the type of person who views personal challenge as an opportunity for personal growth, you will gain so much from a volunteer excursion but if you are someone who tries to avoid being challenged or opening yourself up to new experiences outside your comfort zone then you could face some serious difficulties.
So if this Spring you are like I was and too broke to get crazy in Cancun, blasted in the Bahamas, or wasted in Key West, considering on going on a volunteer excursion to someplace a little less exotic instead. There are small places all over America that are looking for assistance from energetic and passionate people with a more than a little free time (perfect description of a traveler)! Whether you are looking to support a cause you believe in, learn new skills to flesh out your CV, see a new city or just make a new friend, there is so much to gain from the experience of volunteering while traveling!
This story was curated by Quentin Turner