Published: June 10, 2015
Alternative Breaks Leave Big Impression on UT Participants
Halfway through the week during the PEACE Alternative Break trip to Nicaragua, the team and community members had a fiesta to celebrate the local women’s cooperative’s eight-year anniversary (as well as a 16-year-old boy’s birthday). After a meal of rice and beans, the kids went off to play games and the adults talked and listened to music.
“As the party eventually got into full swing and everyone was up and dancing as the sun set, I was sitting on a nearby ridge catching my breath from playing soccer with the kids,” said Matthew Lyon ’15, who helped lead the trip. “I looked out to see all the UT participants mingling with all the community members, laughing, dancing and playing games together. It looked exactly like my family reunions that I had gone to for years, and that’s when I knew that this was the best group of people I could be surrounded by.”
It was just one of the memorable moments on this nearly two-week trip to the Central American country. UT’s student-run PEACE (People Exploring Active Community Experiences) Volunteer Center offers several alternative breaks throughout the year. This one in Nicaragua partnered the students with members of the local women’s cooperative and community in several projects — teaching in the school, building earth worm farms and assisting in the coffee bean process from grinding and sifting to roasting and packaging. The town used to be a coffee slave plantation until 1979 and has since seen progress in education and economic development.
“It was an amazing, impactful experience,” said Ian McGinnity, UT’s director of community engagement, who attended the trip as well.
One flip through the flickr gallery and it is clear, in the sweaty, dirty, smiling faces of UT students and in the pure joy of their laughter, that the experience was authentic.
Stateside, another group of UT students headed to California on a national PEACE trip focused on immigration. The group distributed food and clothes to refugee families primarily from Burma, tutored children at an after-school program, volunteered at a food bank in San Francisco and assisted Catholic Charities in its work with refugee families.
Jessie Beckett ’17, a psychology major with a minor in business administration, helped lead the California trip, her third alternative break.
“For me, the afternoons with the elementary school kids were the greatest part of my educational experience,” said Beckett, of Indialantic, FL. “Watching how the kids play by themselves and with others, hearing about their days, learning about their families and understanding what truly mattered to them were the most fascinating and heartbreaking moments of my alternative break experience.”
In addition to the focus on immigration, she saw local environmental practices in California and the focus on healthy eating within the food banks in the types of food being distributed, to be encouraging.
On a blog she posted about the trip, Beckett said, “Educating the public on the environmental benefits of composting and recycling, providing information on the political components of immigration and taking initiative to know the facts about what it means to be a refugee are our greatest opportunity to teach others and take action within our own communities.”
“Each participant on the trip to Oakland and San Francisco knows this information,” she said. “They now have knowledge and experience influencing them and the ability to influence so many more people by sharing about the alternative break.”
Much like Beckett, Lyon, a marine science biology major from Maquoketa, IA, has been involved with PEACE for years. The trip to Nicaragua was his 15th alternative break. He described how the first trip he took his freshmen year impacted his and the other participants’ UT careers.
“PEACE Alternative Breaks helped us understand that anything worth doing takes hard work to achieve and that allowed us to make positive change at UT,” he said. “Having a leadership role on an alternative break, watching someone see the world through a new perspective, make those connections and learn so much about themselves is the best feeling in the world.”