Should a week spent cutting sheet metal and sleeping in a converted school be considered a Spring Break?
"I think it's better described as the best spring break ever," says Flannery Pearson-Clarke, a UNC Asheville junior majoring in Environmental Studies. She and eight other young women, all UNC Asheville students, spent their “week off” in rural Chavies, Ky., installing needed insulation and sheet metal skirting on mobile homes, to help needy residents save money and energy.
A total of 29 students from the university participated in three “Alternative Spring Break” trips, and for many, this was the first alternative spring break they had ever taken.
The Chavies, Ky. trip was planned and led by the students themselves in coordination with the non-profit group, Appalachia Service Project, which provided a brief training when the students arrived. The women admit that their construction skills were shaky at first, but they worked through the problems, according to Pearson-Clarke. “We worked together, and it helped a lot that one of us had done some underpinning work like this before. And I learned that as a leader, I’m more of a cheerleader—encouraging people rather than telling them what to do.”
“There are multiple benefits to student-led trips,” said Joseph Berryhill, associate professor of psychology at UNC Asheville, and director of the university’s Key Center for Community Citizenship and Service Learning. The Key Center organizes community-based service learning experiences that are part of an increasing number of UNC Asheville courses, and it provided advice to Pearson-Clarke’s group. But the students were the ones in charge, a positive thing, says Berryhill: “Students develop leadership skills. They take ownership, and they feel more invested in it. They feel like ‘this is our trip, and it’s up to us to make it happen.’”
Mountain Justice Spring Break
A second group of UNC Asheville students, members of the student group, Active Students for a Healthy Environment, spent their spring break in West Virginia learning about the impact of mountaintop removal. They joined with students from more than 10 universities for workshops on environmental activism, and worked with local programs providing community gardens and home repair assistance. This alternative spring break was organized by the four-state Appalachian activist group, Mountain Justice.
“We visited Black Mountain near the border of Kentucky and Virginia, and you could look out and see a ‘reclaimed site,’ which was basically a huge pile of rubble with a little bit of grass growing on it,” says Macon Foscue, a UNC Asheville junior majoring in Interdisciplinary Studies. “It used to be a forested mountain ridge, just like you would find around here. In addition to the environmental impact, we witnessed ghost towns left after all the coal was removed and there was no more incentive for coal companies to remain. This is an example of a boom and bust economy which we as Active Students for a Healthy Environment do not see as sustainable.”
Food Justice Spring Break
Closer to home, a third group of UNC Asheville students visited Elon University’s Campus Kitchens program and then worked at Redbud Farm in Elon, N.C. This “Food Justice Trip” was organized by the Welsey Fellowship at UNC Asheville. Campus Kitchens is a national non-profit that enables students to collect food donations from farms, stores and cafeterias, prepare it and deliver it to low-income people within their community.
At the farm, the students cut hundreds of pounds of potatoes, planted them in rows and then drove the tractor that covered them with soil. “It helped me understand all the work and processes of planting just one crop of potatoes,” says Harper Spires, a freshman. “I really enjoyed getting into farm work and the hard labor. I grew up in a city and moved to Hillsborough, N.C., so it’s not really something I’ve ever had a chance to do.”
Most of the UNC Asheville students who participated alternative spring break trips say they plan to continue their service work on upcoming breaks, or during the semester. “These experiences can be epiphanies for some students—they are surprised by how enriching helping others can be,” said Berryhill. “Then they realize, ‘Why just spend a week doing this? Why not spend a semester doing this? Or a lifetime?’”