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Students dedicate spring break to service, social justice through Alternative Break trips

Alternative Break gives students the opportunity to engage in service during school breaks. Contributed photos.

By Candace Mettle

In the first week of Spring Break, three groups of students completed service projects through Alternative Break, referred to as “Alt Break.” The program engages students in service when school is not a priority and provides opportunities to meet other Grinnell College students and people at the volunteering site.

Cinthia Romo ’21 and Gil Perez ’21 led “Migrating through an Urban Space” and partnered with Centro Romero. The center is an organization that offers various programs and aid to immigrants in Chicago. Students assisted in daily tasks such as answering phone calls, organizing documents, attending to the center’s after-school program and renovating a classroom. Students also ran workshops to teach how to obtain legal representation, renew visas and DACA status, register to vote and more. They also toured Chicago and visited cultural sites to visualize how immigration has greatly contributed to and continues to impact the city.

Romo and Perez felt compelled to lead an Alt Break trip centered on immigration due to current national attention on immigration issues as well as their own personal backgrounds (Romo and Perez’s family backgrounds are from Mexico).

“It supported my feelings towards the organization … [based on] the ways they worked on law, domestic violence and childcare… it’s also just another reminder of how much work still needs to be done,” said Perez, on how volunteering at Centro Romero impacted his broader interests in service and life after college.

The duo said managing a group and working with people needing access to the best care for themselves and families required much more emotional energy than anticipated. However, knowing they made a difference made their stresses worth it.

Community Homestead in Wisconsin also received Grinnell College students once again for Alt Break. Many members of the intentional living community have developmental disabilities, and the organization aims to build an inclusive community, as many places stigmatize people with disabilities. Snow still covered the ground during break, and thus the students did not do as much gardening as in the past, but their days still consisted of tending to the animals, building and cleaning.

Harley Rivers ’19 had volunteered at Community Homestead during an Alt Break trip in 2016, and Mira Berkson ’20 had an internship offer there last year but ultimately declined it. She had also participated in an Alt Break trip her first year that was in Minneapolis, and she worked with refugees from Myanmar. Based on their experiences and knowledge of the farm’s commitment to intentional living and disability rights and activism, as well as their backgrounds in participating in Alt Break and other service projects, they wanted to lead a service trip and continue the College’s relationship with the organization.

The College has a reputation for being social justice-oriented, and volunteering can indicate a commitment to social welfare and academics. Berkson did a gap year through CityYear prior to entering college, and Romo currently teaches at the Newton Correctional Facility through the Liberal Arts in Prison Program and is a Grinnell Advocate.

“I think it’s really important that we try to find the time and opportunity to do service work. … I think a lot of people here [at Grinnell] are knowledgeable and passionate about certain things or have things they want to learn about, and I think doing service work can be a really informational and learning experience. … Overall being able to do service is something we should invest ourselves in if we have the time and chance, and I think it does benefit us as participants as well,” Perez said.

Berkson found that the trip helped her inform the ways in which she wants to engage in the world as a politically and socially conscious individual. She said that Alt Break, and specifically volunteering at Community Homestead, can provide an opportunity to learn more about how to make places accepting of people with disabilities.

“I personally see it as a learning experience more than service because it is just one week which is enough time to get to know the organization, but not enough time to make any huge life changing connections and impacts for the most part … And that’s where I’m at in social justice and activism… I’m usually not a part of protests or actions, I definitely feel like I’m more about the point of learning about the issues I care about and seeing how that fits in with what I like and how to make that a part of my life later,” she said.

Ally Leicht ’19 and Quinn Ercolani ’20 led “Environmental Stewardship with American National Landscapes,” an environment-focused trip involving cleaning rivers and lands in parks. They could not be reached for comment in time for this article’s publication.

For more information on Alt Break, contact Keira Wilson, assistant director of the Center for Careers, Life, and Service.


Alternative Break gives students the opportunity to engage in service during school breaks. Contributed photos.
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