While I adore beaches, fancy drinks, spas, and plush hotel beds as much as anyone, this past spring break, I decided to do something totally different. Instead of traveling to a fabulous all-inclusive resort, I took a huge leap of faith and did the complete opposite. While others had luxury, I experienced church floors, manual labor, and very long bus rides.
Last spring break, I participated in a service trip that took me from Wisconsin to South Carolina while stopping in nine different cities along the way. Led by the student organization STLF (Student Today Leaders Forever), 44 other University of Wisconsin–Madison students and I pledged to spend the week substance-free while helping out new communities. Although this doesn’t sound like an ideal spring break to most college students, it sounded like a cheap, fun way to see new cities and states. So I thought, “Why the heck not?”
The first day of the trip felt like the longest day of my life. We spent five-plus hours on a cramped coach bus playing icebreakers. I realized that this trip was going to be anything but the relaxing break from school I so desperately thought I needed. But over the next few days, as the bus made its stops in cities like Scottsburg, Nashville, Dandridge, Shelby, Myrtle Beach, and Charleston, we quickly grew from a group of strangers to a band of friends.
Our service projects varied greatly: we organized a local Scottsburg food pantry, landscaped and created hiking trails at YMCA’s Camp Widjiwagan, organized donations for the Gatlinburg fire relief, cleaned and fixed items at the Shelby Habitat for Humanity restore, fixed picnic benches and boardwalks at the Myrtle Beach State Park, and created new, protected habitats for oyster preservation with the Charleston Department of Natural Resources. We got approximately five hours of sleep each night since we spent our nights getting to know each other and our mornings doing service projects. Either way, it was without a doubt worth every drowsy, early morning.
Not only did we get to visit new cities, but we also got to understand different communities in a deeper way than average tourists could have. I credit this experience to the incredible opportunity of getting to know the local, nonprofit leaders who we worked beside. At Camp Widjiwagan, we all got to relive our childhood by singing camp songs with Reuben, the camp leader; in Shelby, Burney shared his wisdom; in Myrtle, Ranger Bob let us experience a part of his greatest passion. We were in awe of the selflessness, gratitude, and love for others these locals displayed. And we were all inspired by the joy that this brought them.
Even if finances or travel had not been a problem, I wouldn’t have chosen to spend my spring break any other way. This trip was unbelievable from start to finish. By experiencing this with so many other loving, strong, and inspirational people, I returned to school with fresh optimism and joy that can only be found by letting go of your own material needs and selfish ego. I’ll forever be thankful for the memories made and shared this spring break.