Every week, members and partners of the Michigan Active Citizens Alternative Spring Break (MAC-ASB) community will share their stories through our blog, which is a series of narratives inspired by the experiences, memories, and meanings made and shared through ASB trips. This week, we bring an experience from site leader Michelle Helner, a junior majoring in German and International Studies.
Ironically, I first heard about Alternative Spring Break while on a college campus tour of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. The tour guide presented ASB as a chance to be active in a community over the week of spring break. Just a few months prior to my visit at Vanderbilt, Nashville had been severely affected by flooding due to heavy rain showers which caused the Cumberland River to rise by several feet. The floodwaters damaged many buildings and structures in Nashville, and the region declared a state of emergency. I am not sure whether my tour guide’s initial trip site was in Nashville, but certainly after the flash flooding, many volunteer groups from around the country came to Nashville in order to assist the local home and business owners. He said that during his ASB, he had the opportunity to become an active citizen in his community and learn about the socio economic factors that have played a role in promoting social justice issues in Nashville for decades. He ended his story by saying his friend returned from their beachy spring break trips exhausted from many days spent drinking and partying; however, he felt newly inspired after his experiences with ASB to promote social justice not only in his community but all across the country. I knew in that moment, regardless if I had been accepted to Vanderbilt or not, I would participate in ASB as a college student.
Fast forward two years later. Luckily, I was not accepted to Vanderbilt and decided to attend the University of Michigan (one of the best things that’s ever happened to me — Go Blue!). My freshman year was nuanced by a familiar series of events: I made new friends, was quickly swept away by consuming relationships, and tried to balance an overwhelming fall schedule with budding social connections. In the midst of the craziness of my first two months in Ann Arbor, I missed the deadline to apply to U of M’s Alternative Spring Break. I recall feeling disappointed with myself at the time, but I quickly allowed myself to put away my dreams of participating on an ASB trip. Relieved by the fact none of my new friends were going on an ASB trip, I began to live by the mantra of “there’s always next year”.
Looking back on my freshman year, what was missing from my full calendar of academic and social commitments was devoting time to self-reflection and personal growth. They say hindsight is 20/20, but in my experience, I have seen maybe more clearly than I would like to admit how I neglected to take care of myself emotionally my first year at U of M. I identified myself with the friends I had made and not my own goals, beliefs, and desires. In short, I missed out on the great opportunity to “discover myself” during my freshman year because I prioritized my social commitments to friends and family over my personal needs.
As you may have already guessed, I left Ann Arbor freshman year with a culmination of new, heavy mental health problems which I ignored for the most part and continued making the same detrimental lifestyle choices throughout the summer and into my sophomore year. I would like to believe that during this time I was becoming unconsciously cognizant of the damage I was doing to myself and thus decided to apply to Alternative Spring Break. Whatever the reason, I am so grateful that I submitted my application. It had been the single best choice I had made for myself in a very long time.
I was accepted to the Food Justice ASB trip going to Waco, Texas. Our site was called World Hunger Relief, Inc. and all my group knew was that we would be working on a sustainable farm in order to learn about global food disparity. I greatly appreciated the time spent with my ASB group as we discussed food justice on a local and international level; bucketed in the freezing cold; and attended educational panels in order to prepare us for our week in Waco. The small moments of peace I was able to find through ASB, however, did not distract me from the negative influences of my relationships and the enormous stress I placed myself under to achieve academically. Over the course of fall semester my sophomore year, I witnessed my social circles begin to deteriorate. I no longer felt like myself. Forcing a smile became my unhealthiest habit and I continued to bury my increasingly prevalent depression. These negative emotions cumulated to the point that I no longer recognized myself in the mirror, and I knew that it was time to address the problems long at hand.
At that point, Waco, Texas took on many important roles in my life: an opportunity to escape the pressures of Ann Arbor, a means to improve my mental health, and a personal deadline I had set for myself by which time I expected to see improvements. I invested more energy into the trip as spring break approached, and I recall feeling excited but very nervous the night before my group left for Waco. This great sense of anticipation stayed with me throughout the 20 hour car ride, and I felt more ready than ever before to witness and experience personal change. Once we arrived to World Hunger Relief, Inc., I quickly realized my expectations for self-transformation were unrealistic.
The first day on the farm is clouded in my memory by an overwhelming sense of hopelessness and despair. In my efforts to grow, I had forgotten the principles of ASB and my purpose as a volunteer on the farm. I decided to reinvest my energy into my daily chores on the farm and strived to create personal connections with my group members and other farmhands. Over the following days, I partook in many conversations about social justice and learned an incredible amount about food distribution, waste, and sustainable practices. I discovered how therapeutic it is to work with your hands in the field and amazingly, the negative energies that had been weighing on me for so long gradually lifted.
The work with World Hunger Relief, Inc. was not always straightforward. In fact, I often felt confused and unsure of myself simply because I had never worked on a farm before. Farm labor was new to most of the group and we were given a great deal of responsibility as volunteers which lead to several intense situations and many opportunities to grow as a team. I believe the turning point for me during my week in Waco was a moment where I thought to myself, “Wow, Michelle, you can really go with the flow!” after tackling a specifically stressful task. Before this, I had never considered myself comfortable enough to be one who can easily adjust during stressful situations. I felt so proud of myself in that moment and on the following days spent on the farm. Looking back on spring break, my ASB experience surpassed all of my expectations and allowed me to realize my personal dreams of self-acceptance and love.
I returned to Ann Arbor from Waco newly refreshed and energized in order to take on the rest of the semester. During the weeks following ASB, I fostered new, healthy friendships and continued to work toward achieving my goals. My ASB trip inspired me to lead a group myself, and I am incredibly excited to say that I will be going to Saratoga Springs, New York this spring break to promote Native American justice by working with the Ndakinna Education Center. Since last spring break, it has been my desire to inspire other members to grow individually by participating on an ASB trip. I am really looking forward to working with my participants this year and welcome all of the change which is bound to occur over the course of this process. Thank you MAC-Alternative Spring Break for all that you do and have encouraged me to achieve.