Clare McCauley, ’16, Environmental Science, was the trip leader for a 2014 UMBC Alternative Spring Break trip focused on environmental sustainability.
When I accepted the position of Alternative Spring Break (ASB) Leader (for one of five UMBC ASB trips), I thought I was agreeing to plan what would essentially be an interesting field trip for my peers. I wanted share information about the services local parks provide, and what challenges they face in doing so.
I am so grateful that the way I envision a project is never how it turns out.
Back in November, David Hoffman, Assistant Director of Student Life, came to speak to our group of trip leaders. He told us that the risk in a program like ASB is that students could come away feeling like they’ve done some good deeds, without having learned how to engage in the more difficult work of bringing about lasting change. That is why it is our job not just to do good work and make important contributions in our communities, but also to reflect on the experience and share it widely. We must illuminate how working in unfamiliar territory can unlock something special, something we can’t learn anywhere else.
I am not here to humble-brag about spending my spring break volunteering while you lounged on your sofa or headed to the beach. I am here to motivate you. I am here to extinguish the feelings of powerlessness, uselessness, and hopelessness that can accompany good intentions. It is so easy for us to fall into negative excuses: “There is so much to be done! Where do we begin?” “Our individual, single day of service is useless.” ”Whatever we do is barely a drop in the ocean of what needs to be done.”
It still has to be done.
And I believe that when enough people discover their capacity to make a difference through collective work, even the big needs can be met, and the big challenges overcome.
One of the most powerful lessons I took away from working with 5 different community organizations in 4 days was how much work a small group of people can get done together. We spent no more than 4 hours with at any single site. Yet every agency we supported expressed immense gratitude for the assistance of many hands for a few hours.
At Gwynns Falls we cleared vines from a switchback, saving the lives of the trees and improving the safety of the turn. When we got there, the vines and branches were so tangled you could not see past them. By the time we finished, the space was clear and open and bikers would be able to easily see through to the other side of the turn. The work we did would take the Friends of Gwynns Falls group a few days to clear. With a team of ten we completed the job in about two hours. Our work there will last the entire season. The same thing happened when we cleaned and organized the warehouse at the Tool Bank. Ten volunteers, working for three hours, completed 30 hours worth of chores. For an organization that runs on a staff of two, that is a significant burden released. To put it in perspective: that is one person’s entire working week!
As volunteers, we can carry the burden of the small tasks so the leaders can dedicate themselves to the bigger picture. And if we reflect on our experiences, challenge our assumptions, and think critically about the problems we’re addressing, we can develop the skills to become leaders ourselves.
Of course, there were other lessons during the trip. I learned that nothing ever goes as planned and flexibility is a skill. Together, we learned about invasive vines, migratory birds, floodplains, edible plants, and deadly fungi. We even learned what I planned to learn … how parks serve their communities.
We chose to devote our week to environmental service. But that doesn’t have to be your cause. What matters is that you take the first step and do something. Dive in. Start learning. Start contributing.
Begin small, begin local. Have you ever noticed how many vines are choking the trees on campus?
Contact the author, Clare McCauley, at firstname.lastname@example.org.