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On Spring Break, students spring into action

This week, 186 members of the Northeastern University community will travel to 15 communities across the U.S. and four other countries for Alternative Spring Break—a weeklong immersive living and volunteering experience. Participants engage in direct service projects that address critical, social needs such as affordable housing, disaster relief, and youth education.

This year’s service projects include converting single-path equestrian trails from to multi-use, sustainable trails with the American Hiking Society in Virginia; the removal and control of invasive species with the Nature Conservatory in Oregon; developing and improving infrastructure at a teaching center on the Plenitud farm in Puerto Rico; and addressing community needs in Ecuador with the Tandana Foundation.

Brenna Priest, BHS’16, and Mirasol Quintanilla, DMSB’17, will lead a team of 12 at the Peaceable Kingdom Retreat for Children in Killeen, Texas. The organization was established in 1984 as a fishing day retreat for chronically ill children and today offers weeklong retreats throughout the year for more than 5,000 children with chronic illnesses, as well as their families and their treatment providers. Its goal is to provide an authentic, fun day camp experience for children with special needs.

“I love the positive outlook that children have on life, their ability to say whatever is on their mind, and their general curiosity about the world,” Quintanilla said. “I am excited to make each child feel that they are in a safe, welcoming environment, no matter what disabilities they have.”

Throughout the week, participants will be sharing their experiences via Twitter using the hashtag #NUASB2014.

Not only do these service projects provide enormous benefits for the communities in which they’re based, but volunteers and ASB organizers say they also serve as experiential learning opportunities for students to learn about new people and cultures, develop their leadership abilities, and bring back their new knowledge and skills to the classroom, their co-op experiences, and their careers.

“It’s been great to see departments across Northeastern wanting to co-sponsor ASB service programs to broaden the experiential opportunities for their students,” said Anna Sylvester, assistant director of community service programs and events in the Center for Community Service.

Northeastern’s ASB program has experienced tremendous growth since its inception in 2002. Over the past 11 years, more than 1,260 volunteers have participated in community service opportunities domestically and internationally. This year also marks the first time Northeastern has developed Alternative Spring Break programs specifically for the Honors Program, the University Scholars Program, and a project sponsored by the Department of Biology that involves volunteers restoring the environment on the banks of Mississippi.

Each service project is spearheaded by two student leaders who have undergone rigorous leadership training. They coordinate with the host site to plan meals and activities, run meetings to get student volunteers prepared for service, and gain valuable leadership experience.

In Central America, 12 Northeastern students will volunteer at Nicaragua-based Outreach360. Jin Lee, a fifth-year pharmacy major, said leading this ASB program abroad will combine her passions for service and global exploration. It will also build upon her past leadership positions in service and non-service organizations both in the U.S. and abroad.

The Outreach360 learning center acts as a supplement to the schooling local children attend during the day. At the learning center, these students are able to improve their English speaking and literacy skills by interacting with and learning from native English speakers.

“The literacy rate in Nicaragua is among the lowest in the world, and approximately one in five citizens cannot read or write,” Lee said. “By making the process of learning fun and interactive through organized lesson plans and games, we hope to excite the students about learning.”

Each spring, Northeastern Alternative Spring Break establishes connections with new host sites and returns to others to strengthen the bonds they’ve established in these communities year after year.

Patrick Lynch, executive director of Raising Awareness Worldwide, an ASB site in Costa Rica, said student volunteers make a tremendous impact on an organization in only a week’s time. RAW Tours immerses the students in projects within the Costa Rican community.

“Hands down our best relationships are the ones in which we have universities returning year after year and feeling a sense of connection and ownership through an on-going relationship within the communities they serve in,” Lynch said.

A few years ago, RAW hosted 12 Northeastern students. For one project, they rehabilitated and painted a playground in downtown San Marcos de Tarrazu.

“The students did an awesome job,” Lynch said. “It was very rewarding for them to get to witness local children playing in a [previously abandoned] playground that now looks fresh and new and is really a community spectacle for the neighborhood children.”

Written by Jordana Torres and Casey Bayer in University Marketing and Communications. Jordana and Casey will be volunteering at the Peaceable Kingdom Retreat for Children and Outreach 360, respectively. They will be providing first-person accounts of their experiences as part of news@Northeastern’s comprehensive coverage of Alternative Spring Break.