Buckingham County, Virginia. Wilmington, North Carolina. Charleston, South Carolina. Chestertown, Maryland. Greenville, South Carolina.
Five groups of 12 volunteers each banded together for an unconventional spring break: a week volunteering through REACH Alternative Breaks.
Each year REACH provides students with an opportunity to contribute meaningfully to a community in need.
This year REACH sent an unprecedented six trips throughout the year, five of which were during Spring Break.
The trips are focused around different service tracks each year to in an attempt to provide an experience of interest for any volunteer.
This year the service tracks represented were youth development, hunger and housing and environment and animals.
Kerri Musick, the Coordinator for Experiential Learning and the advisor for REACH Alternative Breaks, has witnessed firsthand the growth of REACH in the two years since she has taken on this role.
“REACH wasn’t where it wanted to be. They had only three trips and had a hard time filling their trips. It wasn’t anyone’s number one priority,” Musick said.
This year, however, REACH had over 100 applicants, more than double from last year, and were able to easily fill all of their trips.
What changed? How was REACH able to grow from the anchor organization that no one really knew to a competitive service program drawing students from all over campus?
“We worked on making REACH known, [becoming an anchor org] gave us access to good peer organizations and were able to talk to students during Welcome Week and had better real estate during club fair,” Musick said.
“But most of it came down to the student leaders who wanted this program to be more than it was.”
One of the largest areas of growth for REACH is its pool of student leaders.
“We have really awesome trip leaders who make people excited and the experience is fun and you’re making a difference and it’s a good combination of things for people who have that kind of heart,” Musick said.
Students who have previously been on trips can apply to be a trip leader on a future trip.
The executive board is composed of experienced members who are passionate about the direction of REACH and what they can accomplish, both as an organization and for the communities they are serving.
These communities are varied in both location and the services they need from volunteers. This Spring Break alone, REACH went to four different states and worked with a total of eight organizations.
The James River State Park group spent time outside maintaining trails and completing other environmental restoration projects.
In Wilmington students worked with WARM, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping low-income residents with home repairs for damage from Hurricane Florence.
Other students worked on a farm with the Mid-Atlantic Border Collie Rescue in Chestertown. Between playing with dogs these students cleaned kennels and performed other labors around the farm.
The students in Charleston connected with children through WINGS for Kids, an after school program working with kids who lack the support they need at home, and Lowcountry Orphan Relief, where they put together care packages for orphans.
The students in Greenville worked with three organizations instead of the usual two. In the mornings they volunteered with Project Hope, a local soup kitchen. They alternated afternoons at Poe Mill Achievement Center and Frazee Dream Center, where they worked with kids and on renovations.
The variety of places and volunteer organizations speaks to the diversity of students who are involved with REACH. “There isn’t a single stereotype of people that goes on Reach, there isn’t just one kind of person besides someone who is interested in service,” Musick said.
“REACH trips are open to any CNU student. It doesn’t matter what your major is, or what organizations you belong to. REACH is open to anybody and everybody.”
Many students returned from the trip saying they had a wonderful experience during this week of service. “The trip was fantastic,” Diamonté Jones, a junior and trip leader for the Greenville trip said.
“After leaving for the trip and getting to know each other, you establish a connection with these people and really understand that there is a community of people who would take time out of their Spring Break to help people in need and give back to a community that isn’t really ours.”
This is the second year that Jones has spent his Spring Break with REACH, and also his second time traveling to Greenville. The experience of volunteering last year as a trip member and this year as a trip leader, “has really opened my eyes,” Jones said.
Despite the trip only being one week, Jones remarked on the strength of the bonds he created with the other members. “A lot of the night reflections and discussions brought us together as friends and as a group. We were only together to a week, but I feel so close to them,” Jones said.
“It’s amazing. People were crying and talking about their feelings with one another, and we’ve only known each other for a few days.”
Musick agrees that REACH has a way of bringing like-minded students together in a way that many other organizations can’t. “I really think service is one of the best ways to connect to the person next to you. It’s about working side by side with the person next to you.”
The future of REACH is looking brighter than even what they’ve been able to accomplish so far. Musick has been laying the groundwork for the direction of the organization and it’s starting to produce results.
“We’ve been intentional about the conversations we’re having before we send students to these communities,” she said.
These conversations covered a variety of topics to best equip students for success during what can be an emotionally intense week for some. They discussed how students can avoid toxic characteristics such as voluntourism and having a savior complex as well as who to talk to and what resources there are in place for students who need it.
In addition to all the pre-trip work, Musick has also been focused on following up with students after the trip. All students debrief the trip in a one-on-one session after they return to school, and they have a reunion scheduled later this semester for students to share their experiences with other trip groups. She also likes to provide information for students to continue the kind of service they did on the trip here in Newport News if they express interest.
“Connecting it back here is just as important,” Musick said. “This isn’t just a thing you do and go on Spring Break this one time. You can do that, but it’s also a thing you can do here all the time; this might just be an introduction.”
As for Jones, his journey with REACH may also continue. “I would honestly go again in a heartbeat. It’s been one of my favorite experiences at CNU.”
~Matthew Scherger, Interim Editor-in-Chief~