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.