Alternative Weekend Breaks bring affordable service opportunities to students

As a college student, it becomes easy to fall into a cycle:  Busy days in class and at the library, that peaceful end-of-the week lull, a fun weekend spent with friends and catching up on sleep, and repeat.  While the college life provides plentiful social and academic opportunities, chances to give back through service can often fall to the wayside.

Thankfully, the Community Service Learning Office offers an affordable way to spend a weekend off campus and positively impact nearby communities.  The Alternative Weekend Break program’s mission is to  “prepare the JMU community to be educated and enlightened citizens committed to positive social change by providing reflective experiential opportunities with diverse community partners.”

While many students may have heard about Spring Break and January Break trips, distance and price can be barriers to weeklong programs.  Weekend options cost around $30 and run Friday-Sunday, making them more accessible and a good transition point into community service.

In order to provide effective and impactful service, the Alternative Break Program emphasizes eight key principles:

  1. Strong direct service
  2. Education
  3. Orientation
  4. Training
  5. Reflection
  6. Reorientation
  7. Diversity and social justice
  8. Alcohol and drug free environments
  9. Conscientious living

The first eight principles come from Break Away, a national nonprofit.  JMU added the ninth component, conscientious living, to ensure that students are fully immersed in low-impact lifestyles that resemble those of the community they are helping.

“We think about every decision we make on these trips and how they will impact the community we are serving,” said Health Sciences major and trip leader Mikayla Comer.

Students are allotted $6 daily for food, the equivalent of what is offered by SNAP.  Any use of technology is highly discouraged, and carbon footprint reduction is a main focus.  By adopting a vegetarian diet, avoiding disposable bottles and utensils, and minimizing electricity use, trip participants live consciously and sustainably while on an Alternative Break.

Breaks often come with a sense of adventure, but despite the beautiful locations that some  travel to, trip leaders highly discourage what they call “voluntourism.”

“Voluntourism is integrating service work with personal travel,” said Sociology major and trip leader Becca Oslin.  “People often pursue these experiences without any knowledge about the needs of that specific community.”

The motivation for service should be genuine, not just an afterthought of traveling, and volunteers should take responsibility to be informed about their worksites.

“People with good intentions could easily harm communities if they have no idea why they’re there or what they’re doing,” said Oslin.

2017 Weekend Breaks cover a diverse array of service opportunities that allow students with varying interests to find their niche.  Two breaks this semester have an environmental focus at state parks, while others help disabled communities.  Animal rescue and the reintegration of prisoners are also themes of Spring 2017 programs.

Interested students can sign up for breaks in the Community Service Learning office in the SSC.


Help and hope, one call away

“A call to Choices puts you in contact with help and hope.”

This promise, prominently displayed on every page of their website, offers support to survivors of domestic abuse, sexual assault, and rape.  Choices of Page County was formed in 1986 to provide aid to women and children looking for ways out of dangerous situations through advocacy, legal work, shelter, and counseling.

“Without our services, I believe the women and children will become victims, not survivors,” said Tina Knupp.

Knupp came to Choices as an intern from Blue Ridge Community College in 2003 and became part-time staff in 2004.  She now serves as the nonprofit’s Sexual Assault Victim Advocate, making her one of the few but dedicated full time staff members.  Average turnover rate at Choices is every 13 years, allowing workers to develop full expertise handling cases, engage in community advocacy, and establish collaborative relationships with their clients.

As an advocate for survivors, Knupp guides clients through the criminal justice process and, if they desire, the medical system.  She also serves as a crisis counselor.

“Having people trust me with their darkest secrets and deepest pain is most rewarding,” said Knupp.

But the work of Choices extends beyond direct crisis intervention.  A vital part of their mission is to provide education to the community in order to reduce the need for such interventions.

“The rural culture keeps these topics silent,” said Knupp.  “What happens in the family stays in the family.”

Knupp is certified through the Department of Criminal Justice to train allied professionals on sexual and domestic violence and law.  Outside of the professional world, Choices brings education about healthy relationships to Page County Public Schools.

“Citizens can alleviate the issues by recognizing that domestic violence and sexual violence exist in this community,” said Knupp.


Non-profit provides empowerment through literacy across the Valley

Once a month, I make the trek across East Campus and down a paved hill to Wal-Mart, where I stock up on necessities to keep in my dorm.  It’s an enjoyable time, reading all the different flavors of crackers and scents of shampoo I could buy.  If I fall ill, I make my way to the pharmacy aisle and analyze what vitamin or syrup could fix my ailing.

My shopping may pass quickly and easily, but for 12% of the adults in Harrisonburg-Rockingham County, making decisions about what food or medicine to buy can prove daunting.  3 in 25 can’t read the labels.

Over 30 years ago, Skyline Literacy Coalition was formed to address adult language proficiency issues in the Shenandoah Valley.  Beginning as a network of volunteers who offered individual English tutoring, Skyline has since grown to encompass multiple programs that cater to around 250 students annually.

Traditionally, the non-profit has provided aid to adults at or below a fifth grade reading level in their “Basic Literacy” course.

“The basic literacy, I think, is the most challenging thing that we do,” said Executive Director Elizabeth Girvan.  “It takes a lot of tenacity.”

Tutors work to cater their lessons to individual needs.  Girvan described the story of a student who began basic literacy courses in her old age.  The grandmother wanted to gain enough confidence with writing to send letters to her grandchildren, who lived far away.  Skyline tutors worked with her one-on-one and focused on how to craft a meaningful letter.

Aside from literacy improvement for native English speakers, Skyline has developed new programs over the years including ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages), GED preparation, and citizenship test preparation.  These programs allow the non-profit to adapt to Harrisonburg’s role as a refugee resettlement location.

One in five families in Harrisonburg speak a language besides English at home.  ESOL classes are provided for speakers of languages ranging from Spanish to Kurdish and aim to increase opportunities for non-native speakers.

Once a working knowledge of English is acquired, legal permanent residents can attend preparation courses for their citizenship test.  Trained volunteers go over every aspect of the test in a 40-hour class, complete with a mock interview.

As most students come from low-income backgrounds, Skyline aims to keep prices low, if not free.  A large volunteer network makes this goal possible, with trained volunteers logging over 12,500 hours annually.  Skyline also receives government funding.

“About 40% of our funding comes from federal and state grants, which makes me a little nervous,” said Girvan, laughing.

Since 1987, Skyline has made significant progress toward its vision:  “A community where adults are empowered by literacy skills to be self-sufficient and to participate in the workforce, education and civic affairs.”

I made the windy journey to Wal-Mart last night, and as I carefully selected a responsible brand of dish soap, the sound of children yelling in Spanish echoing through the aisles reminded me how empowered I am to have the fluency needed to make those decisions.

Providing proficiency to others is empowering and enables learners to engage in self-determination more frequently, two major concepts of social work.  Skyline Literacy proves that literacy goes far beyond the supermarket; it can remove barriers to an entire personhood.


Home Instead Marketing Director provides insight to behind-the-scenes gerontology


Jeannette Suter developed in interest in working with older adults during her time as an undergraduate at James Madison University.  Suter graduated in 1999 with a B.S.W. and went on to achieve her Master’s in Public Administration in 2002.  After obtaining experience providing direct services to the elderly, a position for Marketing Director opened up at Home Instead.

Home Instead Senior Care is a national franchise that connects seniors to visiting caregivers so that they can remain in their own homes.  Caregivers help clients with tasks from running to the grocery store to hygiene and personal care.  Suter said that by remaining in their own homes, clients can maintain independence and close relationships with loved ones.

“Aging is challenging,” said Suter.  “There is no one answer to it.  There is no one solution.”

As Marketing Director, Suter has stepped back from hands-on work with clients to focus on macro level responsibilities.  Many of her daily tasks have to do with developing relationships with referral sources, which commonly come through word of mouth.  She also oversees print, radio, and television advertisements.

Home Instead highly encourages community outreach and engagement, much of it through Suter’s position.  She serves as the President of Elder Alliance and sits on the board of nonprofits such as the Daily Living Center.  To supplement partnerships with community organizations, Suter works to educate the public about issues faced by the aging population and how to address such problems ethically.

Occasionally, the industry of caregiving prevents challenges.  For example, due to the rapidly growing population of senior citizens, demand for care outweighs supply.  As a result, Home Instead is always seeking high-quality caregivers, as it already serves close to 200 clients across three counties.  Currently, three staff members work full-time just to schedule visits.  Suter expects demand to continue climbing.

“We’re caring for our most vulnerable population,” said Suter.  “We have to be dependable.”

Despite pressure to expand under industry guidelines, Suter has found working with Home Instead incredibly rewarding.  The franchise always does the best job it can, she says, and she enjoys marketing for a company of integrity.  Marketing gives her an opportunity to blend social work skills with business skills, creating pathways for community-based projects at the macro level.

In order to work with aging populations, said Suter, one must have genuine compassion and empathy for clients.  Flexibility also proves necessary.  Needs change frequently, and service providers must problem solve along with their clients.

“You must have respect for the people you’re working with,” said Suter.  “We have to be willing to evolve with our clients.”