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.

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