March 23, 2010
Poverty and health—just two of the major issues millions of Americans grapple with each day. When Gabe Anderson, full-time staff member at the Office of Community Engagement at Rollins College, began coordinating an Alternative Spring Break trip, he hoped participating students would not only experience these problems first-hand, but that they would also begin to truly understand some of the systemic issues that are behind them. The destination: Washington D.C., where many of our nation’s most challenging social issues are juxtaposed alongside the seat of the nation’s power elite.
On Saturday, March 6, 18 eager Rollins College humanitarians, including 13 students from the College of Arts & Sciences, arrived in the nation’s capital ready to participate in four distinct service projects. They checked into their hostel, a humble abode located about a half-mile from the White House and within walking-distance of D.C.’s famed monuments and museums. Thus began a journey that brought this group face to face with the nation’s underserved, beginning at Maryland’s KEEN Sports (Kids Enjoy Exercise Now) which provides one-on-one recreational opportunities to children and young adults with disabilities.
At KEEN, each member of the Rollins team was given a dossier on a child with whom they were then paired for an hour of athletic play. In this setting, participants were forced to confront and transcend their uneasiness with disabilities. “This experience was really outside a lot of our comfort zones,” said Anderson, a seasoned AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) Volunteer. “Including mine.”
“One of my 'ah-ha' moments came when I was working with an autistic child at Keen Kids,” recollects Class of 2010 student Lindsay Clarke. “At first the little girl would not respond to anything I tried. But when Adrianne and I started playing music for her, it lit up her face and all she wanted to do was dance. She began to smile, have fun, and enjoy our time together. Moments like that made me realize that it takes patience and love to really connect with others. We can't change the world in one day or through one service project but we can make a positive impact on someone else and brighten their day.”
The next day, the group visited A Wider Circle, a store not-unlike Goodwill but different in that its items are not purchased, but given away to people who are transitioning from homelessness to owning their own home. The Rollins team created store displays, went on collection runs, sorted donations, and assisted “shoppers.”
Then it was off for a laborious day working with Habitat for Humanity. Rather than build a new home, the group set to work fixing up pre-existing houses by making them energy-efficient and wheelchair accessible. They installed flooring, fixed tiles, built countertops and wheelchair ramps, and hung curtains and blinds.
The last stop on this altruistic adventure was Prevention Works, a non-profit dedicated to stopping the spread of AIDS. In the few hours that the Rollins teams participated in this effort, they created 399 safe sex kits and more than 750 wound care kits. Most memorable was the education session that explained how Prevention Works’ clean needle exchange program actually lowered drug use, decreased the spread of AIDS, and mitigated harm to police and sanitation workers.
Along the way, participants shared their reactions and insights at evening reflection sessions. “These moments gave students the opportunity to process and share their experiences,” said Anderson. “Some of the things said during reflection were really insightful and I got the sense that the students really understood, in the larger context, what they were doing in D.C.”
So that spring break wasn’t all work and no play, long days spent in service projects were generally followed by fun nights roaming nearby China Town, visiting museums, participating in behind-the-scenes tours of the Capital Building, enjoying cultural presentations, and meeting Washington leaders like Florida Senator Bill Nelson. The trip culminated with a group dinner at one of the restaurants participating in Dining Out for Life, a one-night local event involving 150 area restaurants that contributed a percentage of their sales to Food & Friends. Even during their down-time, the group found ways to give back.
Feedback from facilitators and students has been overwhelmingly positive. Organizers were clear from the beginning that this trip was designed to convey the sentiment that all citizens—rich or poor, able or disabled—are the same inside. “I really feel that participants experienced a sense of shared humanity,” said Anderson with immense pride. “As a result of these experiences, we’re all committed to lead our lives differently.” And if the popular adage “volunteering is the gateway drug to activism” is true, he can expect big things from the 13 students who chose benevolence over beer this spring break.
Photos submitted by Lindsay Clark & Adrianne Benso