Students bypass a tropical spring break to volunteer in their own community

‘Alternative spring break’ a big hit for teens

Students at Wayne State University spent their spring break volunteering for various organizations around the Detroit area. Courtesy photo. (Wayne State University)

It might not have featured beaches, palm trees or warm weather, but to many students at Wayne State University, this meant way more.

Instead of trying to go to a tropical location for spring break, 36 students at Wayne State stayed in their community to serve an annual event called “alternative spring break.”

The students spent a week logging 2,000 service hours at 20 sites around the city of Detroit, whether it was landscaping, trash cleanup, painting and interacting with community members.

“This program means so much to me,” said one of the student participants, Kaitlyn Kipp. “I always tell people that it is the most impactful program that Wayne State has to offer. After doing it, I felt so much more connected -- to not only the Wayne State community, but also the Detroit community.”

Students at Wayne State University spent their spring break volunteering for various organizations around the Detroit area. Courtesy photo. (Brandon Shamoun)

Brandon Shamoun, assistant director for student involvement, who is the staff coordinator of the program, said it’s not hard to find volunteers who want to stick around and help the community during spring break.

On the contrary, the program typically has to turn students away.

“We typically have students come to us,” Shamoun said.

In 2019, before the pandemic canceled the 2020 project and made the 2021 event virtual, Shamoun said there were 125 students who applied for 45 spots to participate in the alternative spring break.

Shamoun said even though he’s the staff overseer, the whole initiative is very much student-driven, with two student coordinators and team leaders spearheading it.

The team leaders are responsible for finding organizations in the city to serve and help out, a task that can start in January through phone calls, emails or other means of communication.

Shamoun said each year, the group tries to find different groups to help, but there can be exceptions in which the group volunteers for an organization that has been helped a previous year.

A big thing to note is that the program is focused on helping local businesses and organizations, not chains or national businesses, Shamoun added.

One example of a group the “spring breakers” volunteered for was LifeBuilders, a nonprofit that exists to revitalize a blighted neighborhood in Detroit known as Regent Park.

“They were doing so much genuinely good work for the community, and the best part about it was, they were consulting members of the community to get their feedback, as opposed to blindly making decisions for them,” Kipp said. “They really built genuine relationships with the residents of Regent Park and helped them with things such as education and home ownership.”

Shamoun said the 36 students involved with this year’s event was actually a lower number than usual, likely because students didn’t know about it with the 2020 edition being canceled and last year’s being virtual.

But he expects the number of participants to go up next year, which isn’t surprising, given the students seem to gain way more out of the alternate spring break than the countless volunteer hours and sacrifice they put in.

“It is the most profound experience I’ve had throughout my college career,” said Sara Ellias, a one of the program’s student coordinators. “While the program is geared toward serving and giving back to Detroit, it is also transformative on an individual level and promotes tremendous amounts of self-discovery. I like to think of ASBD as the catalyst of new friendships and opportunities. It is the end to a series of new beginnings.”

Students at Wayne State University spent their spring break volunteering for various organizations around the Detroit area. Courtesy photo. (Brandon Shamoun)

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Keith is a member of Graham Media Group's Digital Content Team, which produces content for all the company's news websites.