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alternative weekends volunteer trips

Weekend expeditions increase volunteer opportunities, with a side of local culture

Photos Courtesy of Tim Krumreig and Erin Cowden

Combine the soul-warming work of building affordable housing or cleaning coastlines with a weekend adventure in New England and you’ve got a new type of volunteer program, called Alternative Weekends.

While these student trips are shorter than the university’s popular Alternative Spring Break program, they are still packed with opportunities to give back to the community and check out local culture and restaurants, says Erin Cowden, a fourth-year international affairs and economics major who helped plan one of the trips this fall.

The idea was born out of necessity last spring, when COVID-19 temporarily shuttered Alternative Spring Break.

“It’s kind of unique. It’s a new program, so we worked throughout the semester to create our own itinerary. The alternative break programs hadn’t worked with the partner organizations that we’re working with this semester,” says Cowden, one of eight student leaders who created, planned and will oversee the volunteer weekend along with university staff Nov. 11-13.

erin cowden standing outside wearing green

Northeastern student Erin Cowden, who volunteers for the Alternative Breaks program, will be a student leader during a mid-November community service trip to Portland, Maine . Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

Cowden, who has previous experience with the university’s alternative spring break program, worked with another student leader to research nonprofit organizations in Portland, Maine and ensure they have use for her group of seven volunteers. Cowden and the other students will be working with Habitat for Humanity of Greater Portland, Friends of Casco Bay, and the Maine Island Trails Association.

“We reached out to a lot of different housing and environmental organizations, but we wanted to make sure that the volunteer work is intentional and that it’s helpful,” Cowden said. This semester’s Alternative Weekend will feature four groups of seven students, with two student leaders in each group. Two of the groups will go to Portland, with the others going to Rhode Island and central New Hampshire.

The shorter weekend trips were popular this fall, according to Tim Krumreig, assistant director of community service programs. Alternate Weekends had 28 spots available this semester, and 40 students applied, says Krumreig. The trips cost students $100 a person.

“Going on co-op is a huge commitment at Northeastern, and taking a full week off is really challenging for some students. Taking time off in general for more than a couple days can be really hard. These weekend events are shorter, and it’s a cheaper experience because affordability is a really big issue as well,” says Krumreig. “We decided we wanted to try and pilot a fall series of these trips and try to make them a regular component in our programming.”

“We try to blend learning about the charitable organization with learning about the history of the area that folks are in,” says Krumreig.

headshot of tim krumreig

Tim Krumreig. Photo by Ruby Wallau/Northeastern University

Cowden found Portland attractive because it’s home to up-and-coming restaurants; it’s also the base for Northeastern’s graduate program-focused Roux Institute.

“I think location wise, it’s kind of a hub for food and culture in general, and obviously it’s pretty accessible from Boston,” says Cowden. “Also, I know for our trip we focused on environmentalism and they have a lot of volunteering opportunities concerning that issue.”

Environmental conservation and sustainability has been a top issue for most students seeking to join the Alternative Weekend program this semester, Krumreig says.

“I think it makes sense during this era as concern about climate change is at an all-time high,” he says.

Students will also eat at some of the well-known restaurants in the area and will spend time learning about the local history or current issues in the area. But Cowden’s favorite part of the trip is each night when students reflect on their volunteer work.

“Student leaders are responsible for facilitating these meaningful reflections, and making sure that the team is actively thinking about the service and why we’re doing it,” says Cowden. “Then maybe they’re able to take some of the information that we talked about and look at their life with a greater understanding of these issues and become a better citizen or community member.”

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