These past two weeks have been an absolute whirlwind. I had to study for finals, say goodbye to all my friends at school, and prepare for a week-long trip to Immokalee, Florida with 10 other CMU students. Now, I’m finally settling into my room at home and finishing up unpacking. But I’d like to focus on that trip to Florida for the duration of this post…
In late January, my friend suggested I sign up to do an Alternative Break with her through the CMU Volunteer Center. When signing up, I was able to choose from about 15 different trips that pertained to different social issues. Participants don’t know where they are going until after signing up for the break, so as to keep the focus on the volunteer work. I chose Education because I have always loved working with kids and I believe educating young people is incredibly crucial to not only people’s individual futures, but the future of our world. So, I was really pumped for this trip.
Before I get into the details though, I want to discuss what is called the Active Citizen Continuum. The Alternative Breaks program stresses individual progression through this continuum throughout our college careers. Volunteering is one thing, but being a conscientious member of society helps one dig deeper and look for the roots of problems. I tried keeping this in mind as I prepared to go on my trip. Below is a visual of the Active Citizen Continuum with descriptions of each step. Before my trip, I would consider myself at the volunteer stage. But after meeting with my group multiple times to discuss issues within the education system, I feel as though I am more of a conscientious citizen, and I want to be that way with more issues than just education.
Fast forward to 10 o’clock pm on the Saturday after finals week, when my AB group and I left CMU for a 24-hour car ride to Immokalee. Believe me when I say a long car ride is the easiest way to bond with people. We learned about each others’ music tastes (we definitely all judged whether or not everyone’s aux cord game was fire), and by the end of the ride, we got to talking about our most embarrassing stories. It was awesome getting close to a group of people that I don’t think I would have even met had I not gone on this trip. I was incredibly excited to work with them throughout the week.
My group and I began service on Monday morning at Highlands Elementary School. I was expecting to work with kids in families that are challenged economically, and I anticipated the school being in similar conditions. But the school was even better than my elementary school back home, and I live in an economically well-off area. The school is in the same district as Naples schools though, so they get their money from a very well-off area. The socioeconomic status of many families at Highlands is especially low, and all kids are offered free breakfast and after-school programs. It was interesting learning about how things are ran down there and being in a school whose primary culture is Hispanic.
Our daily schedules were structured so that we volunteered with a new teacher every hour. I worked in classrooms grades K-4, and I also worked with the school’s speech pathologist. Our service was both direct and indirect– sometimes we would work with the kids hands-on and other times we would just run errands for the teachers. We also did indirect service through school beautification; we each got to paint a ceiling tile and we painted banners that now hang permanently on the walls outside of the school. My favorite service was always interacting with the kids, as they always had great stories to tell and loved learning about my northern lifestyle (they LOVED hearing my stories about snow). The staff treated us so well; they always provided nice lunches for us and treated us with so much kindness and gratitude. They really made our work feel worthwhile.
Highlands is especially great because it is a Leader In Me school, meaning that the staff stresses the importance of leadership in students’ lives. This had me geeking out, because it combined my two favorite things: working with kids and leadership. At Highlands, the philosophy they stress most is Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Leadership. Seeing this absolutely blew me away because it has some pretty advanced concepts. Now, they do use the child-adapted version, but the kids were still pros at it. Everywhere you turn in the school, you could find a poster of one of the habits. Highlands also does a lot to increase numbers of both attendance and academics. They have gone from an F-rated school to a C, which is an incredible achievement. The work they are doing is paying off, and that was easily visible within the week we were there. A unique thing us CMU volunteers got to experience was Highlands’ Leadership Day. This was where the kids got to showcase their clubs/involvements and show members of the community how they incorporate the seven habits into their work and develop as leaders. Again, the kids shocked me with how driven and motivated they are. I’m so glad we were there to experience that day and see the work Highlands does.
After each day in the schools, my group and I would bond by going to the beach, cooking dinner together, and hanging out at the pool near our housing. I loved getting close to my group, especially since I was one of the youngest students there. Goofing around with them was great because I feel as though we were all equally sassy/sarcastic. They all helped me sort out my career confusion (I am currently debating on going into teaching) and they motivated me to be on an active hunt for opportunities to learn about my options. Not only that, but my AB group definitely helped me realize how much I want to develop in my years at Central. I still feel as though I need to find my voice, and I want to be able to speak about my passions and things I believe in with confidence. Seeing that in my fellow members makes me motivated to do so, and I will most definitely be working on that as I grow older.
The Education Alternative Break impacted my life for so many reasons. It helped me solidify my passion of working with kids, it helped me feel more independent, and it made me excited to keep working my way up the Active Citizen Continuum. I can’t believe how much I learned about myself within just one week, but I really feel as though I can use this summer and even these coming years to work on myself and then focus on bettering the world. Thank you to each and every one of my group members for helping me come to these realizations, and thank you to the Alternative Breaks program for giving me the opportunity to make a difference in the things I am passionate about. I can’t wait to go on my next AB.