Alternative spring break may not be best option for student volunteers

By Rachel Dougherty

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The sun is shining, hookahs are blazing and half the campus is flooded, which means one thing: spring has come to the University of Massachusetts. With spring, the first thing on everyone’s mind was spring break. While most students opt for a traditional spring break – a trip involving a bar, a beach and a bikini – a few take an ‘alternative’ route and use the time to volunteer on spring break trips from New Orleans to Haiti to the Dominican Republic.

Alternative spring break trips seem like the perfect solution for students looking to do something exciting and meaningful with their vacation. But are spring break volunteer trips really a better alternative? How much of an impact do alternative spring breaks have on the areas they’re trying to help?

In my freshman year, I volunteered on an alternative spring break trip to New Orleans, La. New Orleans is probably the only city in the world where you can drink for a good cause. Since Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, Louisiana has become one of the most popular destinations for students on alternative spring break. We spent our days tearing down houses in the Ninth Ward and our nights taking advantage of the lax barroom security in New Orleans’ French Quarter.

I returned to New Orleans the following summer as an intern for a nonprofit group called Operation Nehemiah. Operation Nehemiah is like a smaller version of Habitat for Humanity. Working as an intern, I saw a lot of things that challenged my assumptions about nonprofits and alternative spring breaks. While alternative spring break trips seem like an ideal solution for students looking to volunteer over spring break, the reality can be a little more complicated.

Senior UMass student Dan Hall volunteered in Houma, La. for Spring Break 2009. Hall says he decided to volunteer because “an overwhelming sense of duty.”

“The volunteer experience was eye opening in many ways, not all of them positive,” said Hall. “It felt good to help people, but the organization could have been run a lot better. I made a lot of great friends and did some good work, but I could certainly have done a lot more if the organization had been a bit different.”

Organizations like Operation Nehemiah and Habitat for Humanity are run by volunteers and operate entirely on donations and grant money. They tend to be underfunded and understaffed, which often leads to problems with the organization and completion of volunteer projects. Most of the people I worked with at Operation Nehemiah were Katrina victims themselves. Many of them were living in trailers waiting for insurance money to come through so they could rebuild their houses.

Lack of funding is just one of the problems facing nonprofits doing reconstruction work in this city. The way alternative spring break trips are structured is often inefficient at producing real change. Part of the problem is that volunteers do not stay long enough to have a real impact. The average spring break volunteer spends two days traveling, one day sightseeing and only about three or four days working in the community. Students barely get to start a project before its time for them to leave.

Another problem is that even volunteers with the best intentions tend to be unskilled and inexperienced. New Orleans needs construction workers, plumbers, electricians – the average college student doesn’t have a clue how to put up drywall or install sheetrock. How many of your classmates would you really trust to build your house?

Volunteers can also be unpredictable, which makes them a liability to the nonprofits they are working for. I remember one time our organization sent a group of volunteers out to tear the roof off a house in the Ninth Ward. The group got to the neighborhood ahead of the site supervisor and decided to start work on their own. When the supervisor arrived on site, the group was happily tearing apart the roof – of the wrong house.

So are alternative spring breaks really a good option for students looking to volunteer? Like I said, it’s complicated. Alternative spring break trips are good because they give students an opportunity to see the poverty and devastation in areas like New Orleans firsthand. They educate volunteers in the hopes that these students will go home and fundraise or raise awareness about the problems in New Orleans.

According to Hall, students looking to make more of an impact could try “direct donations and staying long enough to finish the job. That would help the communities a lot more than the current alternative spring break protocol.”

Students could also consider volunteering locally instead. There are areas in Holyoke and Springfield that don’t look very different from the ninth ward in New Orleans.

According to Hall, “there may be better ways, but to your typical college student alternative spring break is a great way to help out.”

For students looking to help, volunteering over spring break is a great start. Go to New Orleans, tear down a house, drink a couple Hand Grenades – but remember that if you really want to make a difference, the work doesn’t stop once spring break is over.

Rachel Dougherty is a Collegian columnist. She can be reached at [email protected]