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An alternative break is a trip where a group of college students (usually 10–12 per trip) engage in volunteer service, typically for a week. Alternative break trips originated with college students in the early 1980s as a counter to "traditional" spring break trips. These trips are usually led by 2 "site leaders" who are students that have already participated in an alternative break and have gone through extensive leadership training.
Alternative breaks may occur during students’ fall, winter, weekend, or summer school breaks. Each trip has a focus on a particular social issue, such as poverty, education reform, refugee resettlement, the environment, healthcare reform, mental health, immigration, animal care, and much more. Students learn about the social issues and then perform week-long projects with local non-profit organizations. Thus, students have the opportunity to connect and collaborate with different community partners Alternative breaks are also drug and alcohol-free experiences, with a heavy emphasis on group and individual reflection.
On the site, students provide necessary services and explore the culture and the history of the area. Students who participate in this program cultivate social responsibility, leadership, and life-long learning; thereby fostering a generation of leaders committed to positive social change. Alternative breaks challenge students to critically think and react to problems faced by members of the communities they are involved with. Being immersed in diverse environments enables participants to experience, discuss, and understand social issues in a significant way.
The intensity of the experience increases the likelihood that participants will transfer their experience on-site back to their own communities even after the alternative break ends.
The aim of the experience is to contribute volunteer hours to communities in need and to positively influence the life of the alternative breaker. Breakers are emboldened to take educated steps toward valuing and prioritizing their own communities in life choices such as recycling, donating resources, voting, etc.
Many breakers have returned to their college campuses to create a campus organization related to the social issue, have a deeper understanding and commitment to an academic path, execute a fundraiser for the non-profit organization they worked with, organize a letter writing campaign to members of Congress, volunteer in their local community, or commit to an internship or career within the non-profit sector.
One of the first alternative spring breaks was founded by Gregg Cassin at Boston College in 1978. Gregg and 11 students raised money from bake sales, keg parties and raffles to rent two funky vans and headed to the town of Vanceburg, Kentucky in Appalachia. There they worked repairing homes, helping out on farms and wherever else they were needed. The experience was life-changing and the group continued to grow each year. This was the humble beginnings of the BC Appalachia Volunteer Group. Now, it is nationally known volunteer program which sends hundreds of students throughout the country each year.
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