For Flint college students, Spring Break is the reward for enduring a long, cold winter semester of studying. Even the name conjures visions of a warmer climate, relaxing in the sun and partying on the beaches of Florida or Mexico. But some University of Michigan-Flint students take a different approach to Spring Break, choosing to spend their time helping others by participating in the university’s Alternative Spring Break program. According to Gary Ashley, Program Coordinator, 135 generous students have signed up to participate this year. “Our Alternative Spring Break is different from that of other schools,” says Gary, who comments that many Alternative SB programs send students across the globe to volunteer, while the UM program offers a community service learning experience on a local level. Since 2008, UM-Flint students have served locally at sites in both the Flint and Beecher districts. “We feel like we need to take care of our own backyard,” Gary explains, “and our students can get behind that.” Participating students carpool to various sites to engage in meaningful volunteering while learning about complex social, cultural and environmental matters. Students participate in critical reflection and analysis of social justice issues they experience firsthand. Last year, 69 individuals participated in the Alternative SB program for a total of 211 days and approximately 1,055 hours of service.
To best fit students’ schedules and interests, two models of Alternative Spring Break are available: the Come & Go Program and the Immersion Program. Come & Go, Gary explained, gives students flexibility, offering them participation at a level that suits them. The students volunteer four days of community service at various sites, including Beecher Community Schools, the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Flint, Flint River Farm, Habitat for Humanity, King’s Karate, My Brother’s Keeper, North End Soup Kitchen, Salem Housing, Shelter of Flint, and Whaley Children’s Center. The sites change every year, according to Gary. Students who choose to participate at Salem Housing will actually work to help renovate a home.
The Immersion Program is a pilot program this year, and according to Gary “the dynamics of this program are much different.” Twelve students who have committed to the mission will stay for four days and four nights at Carriage Town Ministries, a homeless shelter in Downtown Flint. They will be given the opportunity to work there and experience what it feels like to be homeless, and the students anticipate an eye-opening view of a lifestyle that is often overlooked.
On the final day of Alternative SB, all participating students are invited to take a trip to Detroit, where they have the opportunity to reflect and learn about the similarities between that city and Flint. “The idea behind the trip is to thank the students,” says Gary. Last year, the students toured Comerica Park, home of the Detroit Tigers, and ice skated at a downtown rink. This year the focus of will be vastly different. The students will visit Freedom House, a temporary home for refugees from around the world seeking legal asylum in the United States and Canada. It is the only agency in the United States that provides all services needed by those fleeing persecution in their home country. Each year, hundreds of men, women and children arrive at Freedom House seeking shelter and help in rebuilding their lives in safety and freedom. They typically arrive exhausted, hungry and traumatized, with little more than the clothes they are wearing. “This is a really unique opportunity for the students to interact with so much diversity and recognize how blessed they are in seeing how grateful the refugees are to be here!” Gary exclaimed.
Participating in Alternative SB reflects many UM-Flint students’ dedication to giving back. Krysten Perkins is one such student: a sophomore whose goal is to become a pediatric oncologist. As a member of the Alternative Spring Break program board, she is participating in the Come & Go program this year. “I grew up doing community service,” says Krysten, “and it’s something I’m passionate about. I want to make a difference.” Other students have been influenced to take a different direction because of their experience. One business major did service work at an elementary school during Alternative SB and ended up changing her major to elementary education. And while a sunny vacation would be nice, Krysten would rather spend her time helping others. “We are taking our own time to make an impact,” she says. “Those who participate don’t think it’s a sacrifice. At the end of the day, we see the influence we make on other people’s lives, and see that we’ve benefited, as well.”
See the April My City Magazine for the second installment of this feature, in which we will follow up with students who volunteered at Carriage Town Ministries and Salem Housing to discuss their experiences.
PHOTOS PROVIDED BY UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN-FLINT