Without travel or a traditional week off, Alternative Spring Break serves local community - University of Virginia The Cavalier Daily

Without travel or a traditional week off, Alternative Spring Break serves local community - University of Virginia The Cavalier Daily

For Alternative Spring Break, spring break usually provides an opportunity for students to engage in week-long service learning projects outside Charlottesville. With the University’s nixing of a week-long break period this academic year, ASB was forced to adapt — especially when considering the University’s emphasis on limited travel. ASB used this challenge as an opportunity to foster stronger connections with local programs, recentering their organization’s goals towards applying service learning directly to the Charlottesville community.

ASB has been a prominent CIO at the University since 1992 when it began as a part of Madison House before eventually branching off. ASB provides service-based travel opportunities to students on Grounds at locations across the United States, and in past years, has organized between 15 and 30 national trips. Programs work with organizations like the National Park Service and Habitat for Humanity International over the span of a normal, seven-day spring break. The number of trips each year depends both on the number of program applicants — they had around 140 this academic year — and the number of site leaders — veteran members — who wish to attend since. Just up to 10 students can be involved with each individual trip, including two site leaders. 

The CIO has also used the University’s fall break as an opportunity to perform local acts of service, in an effort to make service learning a year-long commitment for their members.

In the daunting face of changing COVID-19 guidelines, ASB has faced a lot of uncertainty as it navigated planning service projects in an unconventional year. In terms of finances, members would traditionally pay anywhere from $500-$900 depending on the project and could request financial aid if needed. Because COVID-19 resulted in local low-cost projects instead, the only payments necessary are $15 semester dues, although financial aid is still permitted on a case-by-case basis.

Ned Flanagan, third-year Batten student and ASB president, was heavily involved with generating creative adaptations to these aforementioned changes.

“In the fall we were tentatively — very tentatively — going to offer spring break trips, so we still recruited as if we were going to be offering those,” Flanagan said. “As the year progressed it became clear that we weren’t going to have a spring break. In the fall semester, we offered Saturday Service Series, where small groups of students could work with a local organization [and] this spring we have transitioned into doing something similar.”

The Saturday Service Series takes advantage of weekends as opposed to the normal reliance on a longer fall or spring break and partnered with notable local organizations throughout the fall and spring semesters including the Charlottesville location of international housing nonprofit Habitat for Humanity and the Haven, a local day shelter and resource center. Both work to alleviate Charlottesville’s housing accessibility challenges, respectively. ASB also assists the Rivanna Trails Foundation with maintaining and protecting Charlottesville’s Rivanna Trail system.

ASB site leaders organize these in-person, single-day weekend service projects for their assigned small groups of six to eight students who they remain with for the entirety of the semester. ASB arranged for as many different weekends for projects as possible, although this was contingent on potential logistical difficulties and local organizations’ openness to service in a pandemic.

Both Flanagan and Jei-Ming Ang, fourth-year College student and ASB treasurer, acted as site leaders this semester, hosting a service trip every few weeks. Flanagan has his sights set on a volunteer opportunity at the Haven in a few weeks, where his group will cook and serve food to unhoused individuals and deep-clean the Haven kitchens. Ang recently traveled with his group members to Hopewell, V.a. to plant trees at numerous public schools Saturday. Ang also organized a group effort around trail maintenance in Shenandoah National Park earlier this semester.

“None of us had ever done that kind of trail work before,” Kirstena Lilley, fourth-year College student and member of Ang’s group, said. “We were working on water bars and none of us really knew what those were, but we were really encouraging to each other [and] I found it to be a really positive working environment and a group mentality.”

ASB also decided to include a virtual speaker series which began this spring to accommodate members who are stuck at home or who feel uncomfortable attending in-person events. The series is conducted solely over Zoom, and students learn about, question and engage with different non-profit organizations. One such example is Youth Rebuilding New Orleans, a volunteer organization that focused on revitalizing its city following the destruction of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Another non-profit speaking later this semester is One For the World, an organization aiming to educate the public on effective giving and motivate them to donate to impactful charities.

Although operating on a much smaller scale than in years past, ASB remains passionate about their overarching goal — to foster future service-minded community members and bring service back to Charlottesville. The unconventionality of the year allowed the program to plant a firmer base in Charlottesville itself as opposed to the usual national-scale of projects, and to open up virtual opportunities that extended the scope of service learning to even more students, despite not being able to travel.

“I think personally I was very satisfied with what we were able to do with all the destruction we’ve had,” Ang said. “One of our goals [is] how can you take what you’ve learned in California or Utah or in Florida, and bring it back to what you’re doing in your everyday lives here at U.Va. If students were able to do a little bit of service and learn some other ways to give back to this beautiful city of Charlottesville … then I think we’ve reached our goal. And I think personally, my participants were really grateful for the fact that we were still able to do some service.”

ASB has certainly faced a world of difficulties this academic year in regards to planning how to provide their usual service in the complete absence of spring break. Regardless of the changes this service-based organization has had to make because of the pandemic, the feeling of giving back and accomplishment has still proven to be rewarding for many of its members.