VOICES OF MAC-ASB: MY JOURNEY

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 Lead Team member and former site leader, Mel Thompson.

When I applied to Alternative Spring Break my sophomore year, I honestly had no idea what I was getting myself into. I only knew that I did not want to spend my spring break in the stereotypical college way, I wanted to do something more meaningful. Volunteering for a week with ASB sounded like a great opportunity to me. I was not too sure what service-learning meant, and I definitely could not tell you anything about social justice. I nervously sat through the interview and excitedly opened the e-mail telling me I had been picked to go on a trip to Cranks Creek, Kentucky to engage with the issue of rural poverty. Little did I know then that that e-mail was the start of an experience that would connect me with an amazing community and introduce me to some of my best friends in college.

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When I got into the minivan at the beginning of spring break I remember thinking that I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I barely knew these people and now I was going to spend a week with them in the middle of nowhere. However, by the end of the first day I knew the week was going to be something special. Being that we were, in fact, in the middle of nowhere, we did not have much to do in our free time besides bond with each other. After days of helping to deconstruct homes so that they could be rebuilt and working to build a homeless shelter (I finally got to use power tools), we would play intense card games and talk about anything and everything. We made many trips to the one Walmart in town and also ventured to a restaurant with some of the best milkshakes I’ve ever had. These once strangers somehow became people that I felt like I could talk more honestly about myself and experiences with than even my closest friends. Our days were filled with so much learning about rural poverty and how these people function in a place without many resources, and after sharing these experiences with my group it was hard not to feel close to them.

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Coming back to Ann Arbor after our week together, I felt both refreshed and sad. I felt sad because the week was over and I knew it would be hard to continue those close relationships on campus when everyone is so busy. But I felt refreshed because I had found a community of people on campus that were as passionate about social change as I was. I knew that I did not want my time with this organization to be over so I applied to become a site leader for the next spring break.

I was lucky enough to be a site leader with someone that I had met on my first ASB experience. We loved our time learning about rural poverty but we decided we wanted to learn about a different issue; we led a trip to Chicago for the topic of youth and education. We had had such an amazing time on our first trip and were so excited to be able to help others have the same experience. Being a site leader brought with it its own challenges, but it also connected me to the ASB community in a larger way. Weekly meetings with the other site leaders and lead team members gave me a place to be more consistently connected with people who cared about similar things.

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My week in Chicago bonded the group so much that it was hard to believe we were once strangers. I was consistently amazed by the insights and openness displayed by my group, and was constantly surprised that I was entrusted to guide them on this experience. As with the year before, I found myself to be so relaxed and comfortable in an environment where everyone accepts you as you are and does not expect you to be anything else. That has been one of the most important parts of ASB for me, and that is what led me to apply for a position on Lead Team.

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Rounding out my ASB experience by being a part of Lead Team has meant more to me than I ever would have imagined. I am so happy that I have gotten so close with the other members of LT because they have taught me so much about what it means to be an active citizen and how to engage with social justice issues. They have become some of my best friends on campus and the ASB community has truly formed me into who I am today. ASB has supported me in my growth from someone who didn’t know what social justice was to someone who is doing an Americorps program after graduation.

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To everyone that I have met throughout my ASB journey, thank you for always letting me be myself and for constantly supporting me and challenging me to be better. I will always value my time spent with ASB and everything that it taught me.

VOICES OF MAC-ASB: A LETTER TO MYSELF

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 Lead Team member and former site leader, Marianne Khouri.

Around this time of year, we start to realize how little time we have left until spring break. Planning for MAC-ASB trips begins in April and now there are only 6 weeks left until trips depart for their spring break destinations! Meetings become more frequent, fundraising deadlines creep up, and logistics are finalized. At this time last year, I started to become overwhelmed. How many boxes of pasta would be enough to feed 14 people? How do we entertain ourselves for a 12 hour car ride to Atlanta, Georgia? I was so lost in the little details that I forgot why I signed up for MAC-ASB. So, I dedicate this post to January 2016 Marianne and anyone else that needs a reminder of why.

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Dear January 2016 Marianne,

I know that you are currently stressed out, but I advise you to take a few deep breaths and give yourself a moment to reflect on your time with MAC-ASB.

You signed up for Alternative Spring Break freshman year because you looked away from your phone long enough to read the advertisement for ASB that was posted near your dorm and found it interesting. You wanted to help people but had no idea what that meant or how to do it ethically. You vaguely remembered reading something about social justice but ignored it, you didn’t understand what it meant. You applied and were accepted- yay!- but the email said that you were going to Detroit, Michigan. Wasn’t spring break supposed to be in a warm location?

You went to Detroit for a week and shattered many of your stereotypes about it. You learned about ethical service, the art of reflection, and the meaning of that phrase that you overlooked before, social justice. You were intrigued and applied to be a site leader to learn more about it. While service brought you to this organization, social justice made you stay.

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Becoming a site leader taught you about many types of social justice issues and led you to one that had a personal connection: immigrant and refugee rights. You were also introduced to a community of people who had extremely diverse backgrounds but all shared a passion for social justice.

In the future, you will become a member of the Finance and Fundraising team and you will be surrounded by a beautiful group of people that teaches you and helps you grow every day. You will learn about the importance of community partnerships; there is no way that we can have a program without them. They welcome us into their communities and allow us to learn from them. You will remind yourself that your work does not start and end with spring break. Your path to becoming an active citizen will be a lifelong one, and you will be so grateful that this organization helped you find that path.

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Sincerely,

January 2017 Marianne

VOICES OF MAC-ASB: GROWING THROUGH DIFFERENT AVENUES

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 Lead Team member and former site leader, Grace Beckman.

I genuinely believe that my involvement in Michigan Active Citizens has positively impacted every aspect of college experience. I feel extremely blessed to have spent my four years on campus working with the MAC-ASB. Through the program I have grown to take other perspectives into consideration before drawing my own conclusion, as well ask been challenged to think critically about how I speak with others and engage with communities. Because of my ASB experiences I now make a conscious effort to ask “why” when I feel uncomfortable, uneasy or perhaps frustrated in situations.

Though each ASB trip is different and wonderfully unique in its dynamics and adventures, I found both of my trips to be enlightening because of the individuals who worked at Junior Achievement and Camp for All. Both education and healthcare are issues that affect individuals who hold various identities. Further, as these issues are incredibly layered within our institutions and our society, there is no easy solution for either issue.    

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I will not begin to compare my short-lived experience working on the sites to the any of the staff members’ who work with the issues each day, but I can imagine the work results in a fair amount of burnout. However, it was the motivation of the community members that inspired me the most throughout my spring break trips. It was speaking with the workers at my sites and hearing their passion for what they do and why they continue to fight each day, even when they are frustrated by the injustices that are perpetuated. It was seeing their level of commitment, love and dedication that inspired me to continue to grow and learn. 

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I now use my passion for our community partners as a member of the Site Development Team. I aim to spread my own love for service with our community partners and the respect I have for the work that they do. I want our participants and our site leaders to be excited for their trips and for the interactions with communities, but also have appreciation for the work that these sites continue to do each and every day. I am incredibly grateful to MAC-ASB for giving me fours years out of its rich history. Thank you for giving me knowledge to continue to expand on, countless memories, and forever friends. MACya! ASBye for now!

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VOICES OF MAC-ASB: LEARNING AT INNOVATIVE SITES

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 Lindsay Lore.

I applied for my first MAC-ASB trip last year. With my love of joining new things and service learning I was excited about the possibility of ASB as soon as I learned what it was. What was unique about my trip was that it was a trip through my learning community, the Michigan Community Scholars Program, or MCSP, which is a living-learning community focused on social justice. I was even more excited that my whole trip would be made up of people who were also in MCSP and that we would get to learn together. My group was made up of our two fun site leaders, and people that I was excited to get to know better.

Soon after we were accepted, we learned (through a very elaborate PowerPoint that included photo-shopped images of my site leaders riding across a bridge in a U-M van) that our group would be traveling to work in Milwaukee, Wisconsin with a non-profit called Growing Power. Founded by retired NBA player Will Allen, Growing Power is one of the leading sustainable urban farms in the world. They are based in Milwaukee and have other farms scattered throughout the United States. Not only is Growing Power amazing for being as sustainable as possible, but they also make sure that the healthy food they grow is available (both with location and with price) to the people living within Milwaukee’s food dessert. This points to something that I think is incredible and hugely important to realize about all MAC-ASB trips: they are intersectional. They may fit neatly under one category (in this case Environmental Justice), but they intersect with many other important social issues at the same time.

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Before heading to Milwaukee, we prepared by having weekly meetings that we used to explore our topic, learn about Growing Power, and bond as a group. Within those four months leading up to our spring break trip, we learned a lot about food desserts, how financial inequality impacts nutrition, and innovative ways that people are helping (by creating non-profits like Growing Power, for instance).

Countless meetings, a group grocery shopping event, and an ASB kickoff after and we hit the road. Working at Growing Power was not always what we had expected, but I personally learned more from that trip than I can ever truly realize. Our first day, some of us were given the job of combining wood chips and compost into a huge pile. To be honest, moving all of that stuff was very heavy, the smell could have been a whole lot better, and Milwaukee in March is not so warm. However, we kept working through all the imperfections and worked as a team to make our job easier and more efficient. It was fun to think of innovative ways to keep the work going smoothly.

Even more innovative was Will Allen and Growing Power. Since they are based in the city, they have to think of new ways to use every bit of space available. They created a stacking technique that allowed them to use vertical space to grow plants without sacrificing the quality of the plants. They created their own hydroponics system that then contributed nutrients to the plants they were growing. They used safe weeds and plants, not artificial food or unhealthy corn, to feed their goats and chickens. And the wood chips and compost that we were combining (all left-overs from local businesses) were heating up the coil that keeps the hydroponics system warm. The chemical breakdown of the materials when combined creates heat and at the center of that pile we were adding on to (where the coil is), it can reach about 170 degrees.

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Throughout the week, we got to help with a lot of different parts of their business. There was manure shoveling and stall mucking. We removed a lot of weeds from plants. We cleaned up the hoop houses and spread wood chips under pots so that they didn’t sink into the ground. We also combined some compost and packaged it to be sold in their store. On the first day we also helped cover the plants with sheets of plastic to keep them warm through the snow storm we received on Tuesday. Probably the most exciting job we got, however, was feeding the goats (both grown goats and their kids) and the chickens.

Outside of the work we were doing at Growing Power, we had some fun excursions. On our way into Milwaukee, we left early and explored Chicago’s stores, a park, and Chinatown. Among our Milwaukee trips we visited the Milwaukee Public Market and their art museum. One day, while we learned about the Slow Food Movement at University of Wisconsin’s campus, we toured their campus, visited their government buildings, and got some Milwaukee ice cream. And on our last night together, we shared “the largest pizza in Milwaukee.”

I learned a lot from my trip. I learned a lot about food justice and environmental justice. I enjoyed visiting Growing Power and seeing the amazing way in which one person had created something that had made such a huge difference to so many people. I met some great people and made some new friends because of the trip, one of which convinced me to apply to be a site leader. I also learned a lot from my site leaders that I now use to guide my own group, that will be traveling to New York City this year to work with God’s Love We Deliver, which prepares and delivers food for people living with auto-immune diseases. Overall, I am so happy that I went on this MAC-ASB trip. It has helped me learn so much and has inspired me to continue growing through future MAC-ASB experiences.

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VOICES OF MAC-ASB: EVERY TASK MATTERS

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 Shoshiev, a junior majoring in Biopsychology, Cognition, and Neuroscience.

My junior year of high school, I bravely signed up for a habitat for humanity trip in San Antonio, Texas with a group of people I had never met before. I was very nervous because I had done little to no service learning prior to that trip, and as a very shy person, I didn’t know if and how I would make any friends that week. My nerves quickly diminished as I realized that volunteering and learning with this group of people would make for one of the best weeks of my life. That week came and went, but those friendships and what I learned stayed with me. Upon coming to the University of Michigan, I wanted to find something that would give me that exact same experience. I found that through the MAC-ASB program.

I applied my sophomore year after I heard many positive reviews from the girls in my sorority who had gone the year prior to that. I was astonished at how many different types of trips there were: Animal Welfare, Health and Disabilities, Native American Justice, and so many more! I decided to go for the Health and Disabilities trip that year because I was interested in the medical field and had never volunteered in that type of setting before. I didn’t know what I would be doing or where I was going, only that it was health-related. Soon after the interview, I found out that I was chosen as a participant, and that we would be volunteering our time at Neumann Family Services in Chicago. This is a non-profit organization that works toward helping adults with a range of mental disabilities learn skills to live on their own and assimilate back into the community. I was very excited as I want to become a psychiatrist and hadn’t had exposure to this type of community before.

During our meetings leading up to the trip, my group discussed issues surrounding mental health in the nation and what we would be doing on the trip to help that specific community in Chicago. We figured we would be working with the adults in the classrooms, which we quickly realized was not the case. On our first day, we were given our assignments for the week. About five of us were in a room inputting information into a computer, and the rest of us did various paperwork tasks. I do have to admit, we left that day feeling discouraged about the rest of the trip. After the next day, we understood just how important it was that we completed what was asked of us.

Our over-arching goal for the trip was to help the organization stay running and help the adults in the organization. We got caught up in the idea of interacting with the adults and seeing how the organization ran first-hand. What we needed to think about was how us helping out behind the scenes would impact Neumann. Since it is a non-profit organization, their funding was pretty low. They also needed to keep a lot of paperwork on file for government and tax purposes.  With the 13 of us, we managed to plow through a lot of filing, copying, and organizing that otherwise would have never been completed. This was all crucial to helping the organization keep running and therefore helping the adults within the organization. It took us working about 7-8 hours a day for a week to finish all of this, and the workers there were so grateful that we came to help them out. I couldn’t imagine an employee having to do this work on top of whatever other job(s) they had to complete. We returned each day after that with a smile on our faces ready to tackle whatever job they gave to us.

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At night we discussed how the day went and any frustrations that we had. One thing that we all were bothered by was the lack of support from the government. It is sad that great organizations like Neumann do not have a lot of funding to keep running and have to do a lot of work to stay open. It is no wonder that there are problems with assimilating those with mental disabilities back into the community because there aren’t many places like Neumann.

While we did talk about our thoughts and different eye-opening experiences that we had, we also explored Chicago in our spare time. We went into the city and ice skated, went to the Lincoln Park Zoo, and even went over to one of our participant’s house in the suburbs to watch The Sound of Music. Countless memories were made, and I could not thank my MAC-ASB group enough for giving me the best spring break I’ve ever had. We are all still very close today and play euchre together just like we did every night back on our trip. After I got home from Chicago, I realized that I didn’t want my ASB experience to be over just yet. I wanted to give back what my site leaders gave to me, so I decided to apply to be a site leader. Thankfully I was given the position and here I am today, writing this blog and anxiously waiting for next semester to roll around so I can hopefully lead just as good of a trip. ASB helped me grow, learn, and laugh until my stomach hurt. I could not be more thankful for being a part of the program.

VOICES OF MAC-ASB: WORKING WITH INSPIRING SITES

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 Nolan Bick, a sophomore at the University of Michigan. 

I was first exposed to the ASB organization when my older sister participated on ASB trips for two years when she was an undergrad. Both times when she came back from her trips, she had about a dozen stories to tell me and my parents about how awesome her trip was, and what they actually ended up doing for a week in a community so unlike the ones we were used to. As a current high school student who was pretty much locked at home for the entirety of my spring breaks, these trips sounded like an experience that I needed to try. So as that typical freshmen student walking around Festifall writing down my email for any club or organization that half interested me, I stumbled into a friendly looking group with Alternative Spring Break at the top of their board. I struck up a conversation with them and was delighted to hear the group at Michigan was similar to what my sister participated in for those two years. Fast forward a couple weeks, and I received an email from 2 site leaders titled, “Congratulations ASB Animal Welfare Participants!” I was ecstatic to have selected and was excited to find out all about what our trip was doing.

Throughout our meetings before our trip, we learned more about our site and a whole bunch of issues with animal welfare that I didn’t even know existed. Before the trip, we didn’t really know what we would be doing. Our trip was headed to Possumwood Acres Wildlife Sanctuary in Hubert, North Carolina where they housed wild animals that were sick, injured, or orphaned. We had no idea what to expect, and for me, the ambiguous nature of our work just make me more excited for our trip. We also spent a lot of time learning about different problems in the broad topic of animal welfare. From cruel sports, to neglect and mistreatment of wildlife, the topic of animal welfare was a topic that included issues I never even saw as issues before. Our group learned about how just simple actions could start to combat some of these issues. As our trip planning progressed, we started to relate the topics we talked about to the issues we were going to learn about during the trip. 

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The time for our trip came and we had a long and crammed 12 hour road trip ahead of us. From countless games of “Never have I ever…” and long fights on who gets to control the aux cord, we arrived in North Carolina and head to our site early next morning. As we pulled into our site, we instantly saw how different the community we were entering was compared to our home of Ann Arbor. Large turkeys, ducks, and peacocks had free roam of the place and weren’t bashful to say hello with a quick bite on your legs. We spent the first few hours learning more about the site, what they did on a day to day basis, and what they expected of us for the days we would be volunteering there. Our group split up and went to different areas of the site to do different tasks. Most of the work we did was very simple tasks, but each of these tasks were labor intensive and time consuming. The site didn’t have the manpower to do even start some of these jobs as they still had their other more important jobs to do every day. On one day, a small group of us was needed to feed and medicate some of the sicker and more injured animals that were housed inside. This by far was one of the experiences where I can say that my week included some of the most unique volunteering anyone has ever done. Not many people can say they pushed a syringe full of antibiotics down a pelican’s throat.

Another day during our trip we headed to The Lynnwood Park Zoo to volunteer at a local zoo for the day. We arrived there and immediately saw how different the zoo was. We first met Gary, the man in charge of the zoo, and he told us that he started this zoo by using donations from the community and donated exotic animals. He built each animal enclosure by hand and worked nearly everyday at this 10-acre zoo that took up his whole backyard. After our little meet and greet with Gary, he asked us all a very random question, “Does anyone want to study medicine or veterinary medicine?” Unknowingly, I raised my hand. He then told me about his goat that was in labor and he needed some help with the delivery. After a few injections of antibiotics and painkillers, this complete stranger coached me through a still birth of a baby goat. He explained that if that mama goat didn’t complete giving birth within another hour or so, he would have lost the mama goat as well. To this day, I’m still speechless about how I was given the opportunity to do this within the first 20 minutes of meeting a complete stranger. We spent the entire day doing work that the zoo needed to open up to the public in a few short weeks. Without our help, Gary wouldn’t have been able to open the park on time because he was too busy trying to care for a zoo and over 100 animals by himself.

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Over the course of the week at Possumwood Acres and The Lynnwood Park Zoo, we met countless number of genuine people that followed their passions regardless of how much money they made doing so or how hard they had to work to keep their passions alive. Most of them worked tirelessly sunup to sundown, 7 days a week, without any reward back to them. Some of these volunteers were just like us students, taking college courses 5 days a week, but instead they were also working 40 hours a week at the places they loved. Both locations ran completely on donations and the workers never knew when the next set of donations would come in to let them even buy food needed for their animals. They worked at these places just because they truly cared about the work they did and the animals they got to care for. Everyday, the work they did wasn’t glamorous and most of it were jobs an average people wouldn’t do, but the work they did was necessary for their community and the animals they cared for.

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The people I met over just the course of one week were absolutely extraordinary and awe-inspiring. They put in countless hours every week to combat the local animal welfare issues in their community where I just learned about half of those issues a few months before. Each person I met had a very simple passion and basically devoted their lives to their passion. My Alternative Spring Break trip opened my eyes to a world of social justice issues that I previously thought were impossible to fight. My week in North Carolina lit a fire inside of me to take that genuine passion I saw in everyone down there, and spread that passion in my home communities. This led me to becoming a site leader for an Environmental Justice MAC-ASB trip to Golden Pond, Kentucky this year. I want to spread that same care and kindness I learned last year to even more people and more MAC-ASB participants. One thing that Gary and the people at Possumwood Acres taught me is that there is always more work that could be done, which is why I continue MAC-ASB.

VOICES OF MAC ASB: AN OPPORTUNITY FOR REFLECTION AND CHANGE

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.

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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.

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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.

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VOICES OF MAC-ASB: HOW A SPRING BREAK IN TEXAS COMPLETELY CHANGED MY PERSPECTIVE ABOUT SPECIAL NEEDS

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 Neel Swamy, a junior Site Leader. This is a blog post he wrote for The Huffington Post. 

The concept of spring break is one that often carries with it a vision of sun-kissed college students frolicking on cream-colored beaches, their sunglasses protecting their eyes from the soft spray of saltwater as their caramel tans glisten in the ocean waters of Florida or the Bahamas or Cancun. Indeed, we often associate the much-needed break from textbooks and essay assignments with freshly toned abs and underage drinking, with infinite youth and wild irresponsibility. While I have nothing against using the blissful freedom granted by spring break to catch up on some much deserved relaxation, my spring break this year involved not martinis and hours of tanning—although to be fair I don’t think it is possible for me to get any tanner—but a life changing trip to the great state of Texas, during which I was blessed with the opportunity to work alongside my peers from the University of Michigan at the nonprofit Peaceable Kingdom Retreat for Children in the small town of Killeen, Texas.

Established in 1984 in memory of Charles Schreiner V, son of Mary Helen and Charlie Schreiner IV and grandson of Daurice and Jim Bowmer who at the age of eleven months lost his battle with a congenital heart defect, Peaceable Kingdom, in partnership with Variety of Texas, aims to empower children with special needs through a multitude of outdoor activities, team exercises and programs throughout the school year and summer.

Upon reaching the beautiful facility after an invigorating twenty-two hour roadtrip from Ann Arbor, we were greeted by the full time camp staff and given a general orientation of how we would be serving a multitude of elementary, middle and high schools throughout the week. From low ropes to swimming to rock climbing to zip lining, PKRC features a wide range of activities, all of which can be adapted to the point where children who lack use of their arms and legs can still participate.

Throughout the week, my peers and I were given the chance to work closely with students of all ages, shapes, sizes, backgrounds and personalities, who along with their teachers came to the camp for day field trips. On one day, for example, we helped teach a wonderful group of fourth and fifth graders from a local elementary school about the importance of volunteerism, and spent the day washing windows, picking up trash and removing weeds from the pool. Despite the fact that these jobs appear to be tedious, meticulous and downright boring, the children were full of energy, spreading their enthusiasm across the campgrounds as they scrubbed Windex onto windowpanes and removed cobwebs from the buildings. At Peaceable Kingdom, children were not told to sit in a desk and silently read their history books. Instead, they were encouraged and even expected to have fun, pushed and empowered to forget the real world and immerse themselves in a world of euphoria that cannot be tapped into outside of Killeen. And what perplexes me even now is that the children needed us, the college student volunteers, significantly less than we needed them. The learning that took place during the week was hardly one sided; each night, as we reflected with one another, our minds still flooded with fond memories of the children who left that afternoon, we would find that our lives were more and more changed by a group who reminded us of what it means to have fun.

At PKRC, it is almost impossible to tell the difference between students who have no identifiable special needs and those students who have different abilities, simply because at PKRC, there is no pressure to treat one another differently.

Prior to volunteering at Peaceable Kingdom, I had little to no experience working with individuals with special needs. My high school was determined to isolate “special needs” students from the so-called “normal” students, which I now see is a negative and rather unnecessary practice. Coming to Texas was therefore an experience that challenged me to shed the skin of misconceptions that we often wrap ourselves when discussing the “issue” of special needs, pushed me to see past the stereotypes in favor of the individual.

As a nation, we have a tendency to assign a level of misfortune or suffering to individuals who we perceive as “disabled.” The paralyzed veteran we see everyday as we drive to work, the blind woman who walks alongside a service animal and even the deaf cat who wanders our street at night are all beings who we assign a level of pain that is not necessary experienced by these same individuals. As discussed in “In the Name of Pain” by late University of Michigan English professor and disability advocate Tobin Siebers, a “disabled body is supposedly a body in pain, and pain represents for most people a source of terror and an affront to human dignity.” We are, for one reason or another, wired by our media, society and communities to pity those who are differently abled from us, programmed to perceive the differently abled as disabled. We assume and even expect that individuals who must perform tasks differently than us must be unhappy or emotionally distraught, and by doing so we etch into our own minds a portrait of narrow-mindedness that is above all lethal to our own individual growth.

But as I have learned from my time at the Peaceable Kingdom Retreat for Children, to have special needs is not to lack ability, but to have a different sort of it, to possess an alternative perspective of the universe that if positively channeled, can foster success just as well as any of our “normal” selves can. At Peaceable Kingdom, children of all skill levels are encouraged to climb the slippery rock wall and zip line back to the ground. At Peaceable Kingdom, children are happier and more motivated than can be, and their optimism radiates into the hearts of everyone they interact with. At Peaceable Kingdom, there is no such thing as “I cannot.”

So, thank you to the Peaceable Kingdom staff for changing my perspectives and opening my eyes to the world around me. Thank you to Jessica, Derek, Laura, Holland and Dylan for making my spring break one to remember, as well as all of the other professionals who on a day to day basis made our trip as comfortable and educational as could be. While my skin may not be any tanner, my heart and mind feel significantly more full and rejuvenated. I will never forget my experiences at PKRC, and one thing is certain: this is not and will not be my last visit to the Peaceable Kingdom.

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VOICES OF MAC-ASB: LOOKING BACK

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 Nikole Koszarycz, a senior on Public Relations (MAC-ASB’s Leadership Team), majoring in Nursing. 

As a sentimental senior, I have begun to reminisce about the most transformational parts of my college experience. MAC-ASB (formerly, Alternative Spring Break) is definitely at the forefront and will continue to shape an integral part of who I am after I graduate.

I have had three incredible ASB experiences. As a participant on a Youth and Education trip, my freshman year, I first encountered how MAC-ASB changes perspectives by engaging with community partners and working to understand social issues in a respectful and tangible way. My notion of traditional volunteering was challenged, and my trip sparked my interest for learning about different social issues as well as how communities empower themselves and work to eliminate them. I also realized the necessity and impact of a good reflection, one where all participants respect others’ point of view (without necessarily agreeing with it), but also feel comfortable enough to challenge it. Why do we think a certain way? Why do others think a certain way? There’s no right or wrong answer, but it helps one understand how society has come to be, and how it tends to affect certain communities.

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With this desire to learn more and do more, I decided that I wanted a different role in MAC-ASB by becoming a site leader my sophomore year. Leading my first trip was anxiety-provoking for me in the beginning, but being able to challenge my participants, and to learn more about social justice and leadership through site leader training was immensely gratifying. We visited Samaritan House, an HIV/AIDS trip, and we worked with an organization that provides housing and other services for individuals who are chronically homeless and diagnosed with HIV. Being able to interact with the residents and to listen to their stories provided me a unique perspective, and again, made me look introspectively and challenge my own beliefs. I also saw how much intersectionality there is in social justice issues: one issue is not unique to another, but rather, there is a cycle of different issues that potentially interacts with and affects one individual.

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Last year, I led my last trip as a site leader to Ndakinna Education Center, a Native American Justice trip. Throughout the year, we learned about Native American Justice, and again reinforced the intersectionality of this “one” topic. We also learned how much history truly has an impact on individuals today. At Ndakinna, we listened to traditional stories and learned about the history and culture of certain indigenous groups in that region. We also learned different outdoor skills and about how Native peoples used nature as an important tool for everyday life. One topic of Iroquois history that we learned still sticks with me today, and that is the story of the formation of the Iroquois nation. The Iroquois nation is actually comprised of six nations: the Mohawk, the Onondaga, the Oneida, the Cayuga, the Seneca, and later, the Tuscarora. These nations were actually in war, until a Peacemaker showed each group that one arrow alone breaks very easily. But, a bundle of five arrows cannot be broken.

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Using this as a metaphor, teamwork and understanding definitely prevail when working toward social change. Although it happens gradually, participating in MAC-ASB trips fuels a fire in many people: a fire to help make change, to engage with communities already making change, and to understand why change needs to be made in the first place. We all have the potential to educate others and ourselves about issues that matter, as well as challenge our own beliefs in order to make society more inclusive and supportive of individuals impacted by different issues. Although a change in oneself seems small and insignificant, a change in several people improves society, works on the side of equality, and even has the potential to make steps toward structural improvements and transformational policies.

So, although my membership in MAC-ASB has lasted for only four years of my life, my participation in social justice work will endure past my university years, and will continue to affect me and how I interact with others. It will impact my choices and decisions, and will keep on pushing me toward social change and understanding. MAC-ASB not only gave me indescribable experiences, but also will forever encourage me to learn, to challenge myself, to pursue social change, and to be an active citizen.

VOICES OF MAC-ASB: GROWING TOWARD ACTIVE CITIZENSHIP

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 Paul Ilkka, a senior on Site Development (MAC-ASB’s Leadership Team), majoring in Neuroscience and History. 

When I first decided to apply for ASB my sophomore year, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. My decision was motivated by recommendations from friends, who told me that I would learn a ton, as well as my strong desire to not spend a week at home. Once I began the application, I started to realize that my expectations might not quite line up with reality. During the interview process, I felt overwhelmed, despite the relaxed nature. I didn’t know what social justice was. I wasn’t totally sure I understood the concept of service-learning either. Meanwhile, I felt like everyone else at my table had beautiful answers; they were much more prepared than I was.

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Somehow I got lucky and was placed on a Healthcare and Disability trip. The pre-break meetings we had completely transformed my perceptions. My site leaders lead engaging and thoughtful discussions that challenged my preconceived notions of what the term “disability” meant and the reality of what life was like for people of differing abilities. I was also introduced to the concept of intersectionality for the first time. Never before had I seriously considered how education or a person’s living situation might impact their health and vice versa.

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All of the training and education we received still didn’t fully prepare me for the trip; there is no way to grasp these ideas without some kind of first hand experience. The week I spent at Neumann Family Services was both difficult and enlightening. At first it was hard for me to comprehend the reality of what the clients at Neumann were facing. As someone with an immense amount of privilege, I initially struggled with my desire to help and with the guilt I felt. Talking with the workers and clients of Neumann helped me to begin to reconcile my mixture of feelings. This week helped to transform me from someone with a desire to help, but with a major lack of education, into someone who now wants to take the time to understand the social ills that face our society, and therefore have a better grasp on what I can actually do to help people, and not just what I think is helpful.

The decision to join Alternative Spring Break has by far been one of the best choices of my life. This organization sparked a passion I never knew I had and has inspired to me to always try to learn more and further progress on my path toward active citizenship.

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