Making Winter Break Matter

Students who participated in this year’s Alternative Winter Break came together recently for a dinner to reflect on their experiences. Each January, student leaders organize AWB trips to take their peers into Maine communities to volunteer during the last week of winter break.

Ryan Davis ’15 and Tenzin Tsagong ’16 led a week-long trip that exposed and educated students on hunger and homelessness in Portland. Students primarily worked with the Preble Street Resource Center, headed by Mark Swann ’84. Students toured Preble Street’s housing facilities and teen center, learning about how different demographics of people cope with homelessness.

A Texas native, Davis participated in two AWB trips before leading one of the two 2014 trips. Familiar with the week-long structure and expectations that come from an AWB trip, he praised this year’s experience for being especially educational.

"Rather than contributing one week’s worth of strictly hands-on volunteering, the experiences we had emphasized learning," said Davis. "Realistically, learning about and connecting with the organizations felt like the best way to position ourselves for the week."

One of the most powerful experiences of the trip, according to Davis, focused on homeless advocacy. Elise Boyson, an advocate for homeless rights, exposed students to the legislative work behind a recent $400,000 grant to provide services to victims of human trafficking in Cumberland and York counties.

Visiting Preble Street’s Maine Hunger Initiative "inspired different ways of thinking about hunger," explained Julie O’Donnell ’17, who spoke in front of a packed Cram Alumni Barn at the AWB reflection dinner, organized by the McKeen Center for Common Good. She explained how the "week changed [her]," because she saw the hardships of those whom "society often forgets." The week enlightened her to "the commitment of those who are living with poverty and the strength of those combatting homelessness."

Juliet Eyraud ’16 and June Guo ’16 led another AWB trip that examined refugee and immigrant education in Maine. Some of the events included shadowing a student learning English in a diverse middle school; working on Martin Luther King day celebrations at the Portland Housing Authority Center; and learning skills in grant writing at Community Financial Literacy.

Rubi Duran ’16, an Arizona native, compared the immigrant narratives in Portland with those she recalled from back home.

"They struggle through very similar problems. In working with Portland Adult Education, I was inspired when I saw adults pushing themselves to adopt new cultures and learn a new skill set."

AWB challenged students to think about the ways they engage with the mid-coast community. "We live so close to these immigrants, and we had never paid attention to them, " said Duran.

Emily Talbot ’16 said she’s inspired to continue stating involved with refugee populations. "In one week I learned a lot," said Talbot, "but it doesn’t even scratch the surface. Several of us plan to go back to the organization to continue independent studies and continue connecting with fellow Mainers with whom we share experience and land."