Massachusetts Daily Collegian

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]

11 Comments

11 Responses to “Alternative spring break may not be best option for student volunteers”

  1. Sam on April 1st, 2010 1:11 am

    After reading your article, it reminds me a little bit of this article:
    http://www.theonion.com/articles/alternative-spring-break-devolves-into-real-spring,2171/

    I have been on a few of these spring break trips and I will agree with you that a house cannot be completed in a week, nor does the work stop after spring break if you are really interested in making a difference.
    However, I will disagree with one of the common criticisms of groups like Habitat for Humanity that, instead of donating our time, we should just donate our money. From my experience, if you were to ask for the same amount of money for a donation instead, you would likely be turned down. So not only would no money be invested into helping others build houses, but many would-be volunteers would spend their spring breaks on their couches watching reruns of Lost.
    I would trust everybody who I have traveled with in the past to build my own house, and I believe that with a good site supervisor, any college student is capable of contributing something. By bringing a group of just 20 students, even with training time excluded, they will still contribute hundreds of work hours to finishing a house for someone.
    If you are interested in helping locally I would strongly recommend that you either sign up here for local builds:
    http://pioneervalleyhabitat.org
    or go to our local RSO website and sign up for the mailing list:
    http://umasshabitat.com/

    -Sam Erb
    UMass HFH RSO

  2. Jill on April 1st, 2010 9:57 am

    Hi Rachel – thanks for a bit of the critical eye turned towards what can just be looked at as shallow “do-gooding”, like alternative breaks. To be transparent, I’m the executive director of Break Away – a nonprofit that works with 150 campuses to build high quality alternative break programs. UMASS-Amherst was a chapter school years ago. Sounds like it might be time to come back. The big point: there is a BIG difference between service trips/voluntourism and alternative break trips. Alternative breaks are a) alcohol and drug free, b) work very hard to develop relationships with the community partners/organizations that help them deal with questions about how the organization runs things and how to most effectively perform service work, c) focused on building basic skills well before the trip needed to carry out the service, and d) a year long program, of which the trip serves as a catalyst to help participants understand how to best engage in addressing that issue in their own communities. UMASS certainly has these types of alternative breaks – sounds like yours missed the bill. Thanks for highlighting the weaknesses created by an incomplete experience.

  3. Sam on April 1st, 2010 10:03 am

    The purpose of an alternative break is active citizenship. Meaning, the members of the alternative break return to their campuses with a different orientation to the world and with the desire to invest in their communities. I have seen people return from their alternative breaks and change their major, start student groups on campus around their social issue, return to their host community in the future, donate, etc.

    Going into a city and volunteering for a couple of hours during the day and then drinking at night probably didn’t really allow your group to internalize much of what you were learning, seeing or experiencing. I too have participated in several alternative breaks – and we didn’t drink on any of them. Instead, we spend our evenings with community members, we reflected on the social issues we had learned about and the service we were doing and because of that investment, we had a fuller, richer experience. An experience that led many of us to recognize that we weren’t going to change a community like New Orleans in one week. Alternative breaks are about changing the individual volunteer – but they also provide a much needed service to community organizations that need volunteers to keep running.

    And you are right, nonprofits are typically underfunded and understaffed, which is why alternative break groups and other volunteers are integral to their work. There are a lot of alternative break programs that have committed to sending trips to New Orleans in the years since the hurricane hit. If all of those alternative break programs stopped sending groups down to work in those communities who would be left to do the work but those underfunded and understaffed non-profit organizations.

  4. Angie on April 1st, 2010 4:10 pm

    It’s unfortunate that your trip was not one that made a powerful positive impact in your life. I have to agree with some of the other comments that probably the reason for that is related to drinking, lack of prior trip focus on the issue, education, skill learning, and reorientation after the trip. Alternative breaks are not just about the week that is spent serving, but it is a commitment to the trip’s issue on a much larger scale. Alternative breaks are intended to, yes do service, but also breed active citizens. It is intended to open the students eyes so they may see systems in our country and globally that need out attention, consideration, and change! When active citizenship happens because of an alternative break it is a beautiful thing.

    I have been very fortunate to have participated in five alternative breaks while I was in college. They were all powerful in their own way and I never was the same after those experiences. They rocked my world in the best way. I am convinced that those trips not only transformed all who participated world views, but also impacted the communities of who we were serving in a good way. Even if it was “busy work”, it was work that needed done and an issue that needed attention brought to it.

    Did you know that this year alone it is estimated that there will be 1.4 million service hours from alternative breaks? That is revolutionary I think and extremely powerful. With those many hours of service I think it would be arrogant to think that the impact is minimal and students should think twice about serving thru that avenue! Your title of this article seems crazy with those numbers. Not such a bad option after all huh?

  5. Ulrike Rickey on May 2nd, 2010 12:16 pm

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  6. Saul Plagens on June 5th, 2010 1:48 pm

    Incredible read! Thank you for this.

  7. LMU on August 2nd, 2010 2:34 pm

    The quality of an Alternative Break program varies from school to school in how new the program is and what its standards are. At Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles our program has been running for 8 years and we have a strict no drugs or alcohol policy on our trips so that the focus is really on service. We team up with the best Non profits who are skilled in their volunteer leadership and training. At our selected service sites students do learn how to build a house and acquire skills they may not have previously had, even electric or plumbing. Students can make a difference on their Alternative Break but naturally it is the volunteers who walk away with more as they have the most to learn and gain from the experience.

  8. Alfonso Weidert on January 6th, 2011 1:15 pm

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  10. Mark Denega on August 5th, 2013 11:31 am

    Late to this article, but still glad I found it. Nicely put, Rachel. This kind of critical awareness and reflection is a necessary for university volunteer programs, and all short-term service opportunities. I’m currently editing a feature-length documentary called H.O.P.E. Was Here on this very subject, where we followed Stonehill College alternative spring break trip to the slums of Lima, Peru. I found that the educational components and personal relationships formed during the trip were worthwhile, but the service work itself seemed unhelpful and disorganized.

  11. Jim in New Orleans on March 4th, 2014 1:18 pm

    The problem I have with this article is that it almost seems to discourage folks from doing these trips because the implication is that they do more harm than good. First of all, as a New Orleanian, we have had many student groups help is in the aftermath of Katrina and more recently in other ways. For instance, every year a group from Boston University volunteers with the NOLA SPCA. While I agree that the total impact is minimal, the fact is that students coming from as far as 2400 miles away to knock out molded walls or spend a week socializing our animals to make them more adoptable does considerably more to impact our communities in a positive way than spending a week drinking at the beach in Florida. It exposes students to the reality that there is life beyond themselves, and in hosting these alternative spring break students for dinner the past 3 years, I can tell you that virtually all of them were impacted on a deep emotional level from their experience. I still get cards and e-mails from some of them.

    Your article reminds me of an article on exercise some years ago, which basically said if your exercise doesn’t get your heart rate up to your maximum heart rate reserve, then you may as well stay home, which of course is hogwash. The ASB trips may not make a significant impact, but they make a positive impact, and to folks like this New Orleanian, it gives us hope for the world, not just for our city. To use a very worn out saying, “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater”.

    By the way………..the Boston University ASB trips are strictly no-alcohol trips; they would never even approach bar rooms. Perhaps part of the problem is UMass needing to clean up it’s OWN house before dissing the impact volunteers make on these spring break trips. New Orleans is very much a family city; most locals do not even go to Bourbon St., let alone drink any hand grenades.

    I, too, regret that I’m late to this article.

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