UM Alternative Breaks provided students an opportunity to visit new areas, get involved with social and environmental projects and find new passions.
By Renee Reneau
CORAL GABLES, Fla. (March 20, 2014) —
Spring break was the best week of the year for many UM students, but for the 100 students who participated in UM Alternative Breaks, the week was only the beginning of new passions, projects, and priorities.
Poonam Patel, a UMAB participant who spent her break in Selma, Alabama working with children and racism issues, said the stories she heard from children living in the historically segregated town were impactful.
“The town of Selma is very segregated,” Patel said. “It’s noticeable how back in the past it is, but to be able to hear the stories of the kids, how far they’ve come, it gives you inspiration and something you can believe in.”
The group worked with a non-profit organization called Freedom Foundation that promotes education and an acceptance of differences in the community. The foundation acts as an umbrella organization for various mentoring, after-school, and dance programs. RATCo, or the Random Act of Theater Company, was established in 2008 in Selma and seeks to instill values in youth to invest in change through promoting self-expression.
Freedom Foundation’s biggest project is the renovation of a historic downtown landmark, Tepper’s Building. Already over 2,000 hours of volunteer work have gone into removing more than 800 cubic feet of debris, with more to come.
“The manual labor at Tepper’s was definitely the most challenging aspect, but it’s worth knowing that you’re creating a space just for the kids,” Patel said.
One of the most significant parts of the trip was the group’s participation in the 49th Jubilee, an annual celebration that honors those lost in 1965 on Bloody Sunday during the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery.
“It’s a huge festival that honors the marchers,” Patel said. “We got to go with everybody in the town and cross the bridge, and we were the first alternative break group to ever get to participate.”
From learning about the town’s rich cultural history, to enjoying the Southern hospitality with a backyard BBQ cookout, Patel’s group became official members in the battle for justice and equality that continues in the town today.
“It was one of the greatest experiences I’ve had,” Patel said. “It was very eye-opening to see what other towns are like. That racism still exists, and I think everyone should be aware of that, and these trips bring that kind of awareness.”
Nestled between the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Cherokee National Forest, Miranda Goot, one of three UMAB site logistics chairs, led her group in learning about environmental sustainability issues at Once Upon a Time.
“At the beginning we faced some group dynamic problems because not everyone had the same perspective. But it was cool to mediate the conflicts, and by the end, we all had nicknames and got along really well.”
Trailblazing through the mountains and learning about the local native Cherokee and Appalachian communities, Goot’s group assisted in efforts to remove invasive species from the environment and spoke with professionals from the Cherokee Community Health Center.
At the end of the week, the group participated in a “wood-burning” exercise in which they carved their experiences into small planks of wood.
“We carved all our inside jokes on the slices of wood too,” said Goot. “The pieces hang around different cabins to display the impact Once Upon a Time has on everyone who visits. It was a way to leave a piece of us behind too.”
The wood burning was just a part of the reflection built into the UMAB program. A UMAB welcome back dinner will take place this Friday, March 21, and a reorientation service day is scheduled for April 5.
“On the trip we were already talking about ways we can hang out when we return, and what we can do to bring back what we learned,” Goot said. “That is what Alternative Breaks is all about.”
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