Spring Break is generally known as a time for catching up on lost sleep, watching television, or basking in the warm tropical sun. But for 27 Cornell students, the week off from classes meant volunteering their time for Alternative Breaks.
Students who join the program go to areas in need of community service during school recesses. Though they only stay for a short period, the students with Alternative Breaks face issues such as literacy, poverty, racism, hunger, homelessness and environmental woes.
“It’s only a week but it’s very intense,” said Renuka Tipirneni ’03, fundraising chair of Cornell’s Alternative Breaks chapter and a participant in the Lake Placid trip.
This year, Cornell hosted trips to Mountain Lakes Children’s Residence, a home for juvenile delinquents in Lake Placid, the Homeless Workers Organization for More Employment (HOME) in Orland, Maine and The Bowery Mission, a men’s homeless center in New York City.
The Alternative Breaks program was introduced to Cornell in 1998. However, according to Joyce Muchan ’96, student program advisor, similar programs on a smaller scale have existed for many years at Cornell.
“Although it is still an infant program of the service center [Cornell’s Public Service Center], it has doubled in size from last year,” Tipirneni said.
To accommodate this year’s large amount of interest, the student board began planning fundraising events in mid-September.
The money raised paid for each student’s expenses, gas, rental vans, lodging and food.
“Fundraising is very difficult,” Muchan said. “The students work very hard to raise money and figure out ways to cut costs.”
In addition to raising money, fundraising serves as a team building activity.
“A lot of [Alternative Breaks] is fundraising,” said Sharon Baskind ’02, spring break coordinator. “We try to turn it into group bonding activities. It’s important that we are all good friends and get along well.”
In addition to fundraising events, the groups met each week to prepare their trips. A counselor from the Empathy Assistance and Referral Service (EARS) spoke to the students, as did the director of the Lake Placid center.
“They talked about the issues they would face,” Muchan said. “[Team building meetings] are a time for training, preparation and discussion of fears and strengths.”
The National Alternative Breaks Organization emphasizes that students know their trip’s goals, direct their aid to areas where it is most needed and where the community most asks for it and share thoughts on the experience. To many participants, the most important principle was that of reciprocal learning.
“Our trip is not geared to be the saviors, the most important part is working with the people; the idea is mutual learning,” said Board Chair Kate France ’02.
According to Tipirneni, the participants on her trip to Lake Placid grew close with the boys at the residential center, ages 12 to 18, by engaging in every-day activities with them. The students played sports with the boys, tutored them, and organized a talent show. They also helped reconstruct an old chapel into a library.
“We learned a lot from them,” Tipirneni said. “No matter where people come from they are still people and need the same things. It was really hard for all of us to leave because it was very emotional.”
According to Baskind, the trip was a success and the week was helpful for the boys. Muchan already has Lake Placid in mind for future trips.
“We want to build on work already done.” she said. “It is effective to work with the same agencies. We benefit from the consistency.”
Some of this years participants also have plans to return to the program. France, who volunteered to work with HOME said she is will be attending a trip next year.
In Maine, she and nine other students worked with HOME, an organization which began as a land trust co-op in 1982 and now provides a shelter, soup kitchen, used clothing store and employment to many older men.
“We built a new space for the small appliance repair shop, moved and cut lumber, sorted clothing in the used clothing shop, and cooked for the food bank,” France said.
Preparing meals was a common thread among the trips. The students on the trip to the Bowery spent much time cooking and distributing food.
“It was intense. We prepared and delivered food all week,” Muchan said.
The organization serves eight meals a day to anywhere from 30 to 60 men. Twice a week the mission also heads out into the streets to deliver food to Tompkins Square Park on the lower east side.
In addition to its spring break trips, the organization is planning two month-long trips to the Dominican Republic in June and July.
Last June was the first year a group was sent to the Dominican Republic. Approximately 25 students have signed up for the trip, the largest attendance seen by a Cornell Alternative Breaks summer program in recent years.
The students are trying to raise approximately $1,500 for each student’s airfare, room and board.
Alternative Breaks is working with the Vice President of the Dominican Republic to find out which areas are in greatest need of aid.
“We are working with the community to serve their needs,” Muchan said.
In June the students will be traveling to the village of Sondar. The village has a population of approximately 200 and is located in the northern part of the country.
The village has no running water or electricity. Last June students slept on the floor under mosquito nets.
“It didn’t feel like I was living in poverty for a month,” said Anita Nathan ’03, a volunteer on last year’s trip. “I learned so much from these people and their happiness with what they had.”
The volunteers spent their mornings working on a group project in which they built a community center for the village that housed a medical clinic and sewing machines for the women.
In the afternoons, volunteers spent their time working on individual projects. Nathan went door-to-door gathering health information to create the first written medical records in the village.
Students also worked on inventing methods to bring running water and electricity to the village, compiling a book of life stories told by the women of the village, and teaching English.
This summer’s group project will be to build a library and furnish it with books and used computers. Many of the students will pick up where they left off with their individual projects; some new ones include cultural activities, nutritional instruction and increased attention to literacy.
“None of us knew what to expect because it was the first trip, but I don’t see how I couldn’t be involved with it for the rest of my life,” Nathan said.
The next trip, in July, is going to La Horma, a village located approximately three hours northwest of Santo Domingo. The group from Cornell will build a community center for a mountain region, supply the center with used computers and assist the residents of the area in selling their produce using the World Wide Web.
Alternative Breaks requires an application and interview from students interested in participating. New this year is a minimum Spanish requirement for the trips to the Dominican Republic.
The Alternatives Breaks board is already planning for trips to come.
“A lot of people don’t know this stuff is out there,” Nathan said. “They see community
service as a burden, but this trip was the most fun I’ve had in my life.”
Archived article by Rachel Einschlag