Breaking Through Service

BG Alternative Breaks provides life changing experiences

By Marie Dunn-Harris

Life changing. That’s how a group of students who embarked on a weeklong service trip described what they experienced over spring break. BG Alternative Breaks (bGAB) is an organization through the Center for Community and Civic Engagement that plans service trips during student breaks in the fall and spring. Recently, a group of around 40 bGAB students traveled to three different parts of the country to donate their time.

“bGAB is one of the most rewarding experiences,” said bGAB president Emily Hillyer. “I’d recommend that all students go on at least one service trip during their time at BGSU.”

The trips focused on three social justice issues, which were chosen by the bGAB leadership team. The site leaders for each trip work together in determining a social issue that they are passionate about. They then utilize resources from bGAB’s national partner, Break Away, and find a community partner that works with that issue. 

The social issues they chose were water quality in Murphy, N.C., sustainability in Boone, N.C. and animal welfare in Chicago, Ill. 

Students who traveled to Murphy, N.C., focused on water quality while working with the Hiwassee River Watershed Coalition. The organization works to help sustain good water quality in streams, lakes and rivers that flow into the Hiwassee River. Students helped the coalition in removing invasive plant species from the area. 

“We took out the plants that were harming the native plants, which also made room for the animals to live,” said senior applied health science major Sabre Adkins. 

One thing that surprised Adkins, who also served as site leader, was how much work they were able to get done with a very small group of people. She was also surprised at how much that work had an impact on a larger scale.

“There was an economical advantage to the work we were doing,” she said. “That water goes down to the Gulf of Mexico so the work we did in Murphy showed further down in Louisiana.”

One of the more challenging trips was in Boone, N.C., where students lived off the grid and learned about sustainability and renewable energy at Woodland Harvest Mountain Farm. The farm envisions a future where people can live in harmony with the land and grow and sustain food and energy.  They create their own energy using a micro-hydro turbine and solar panels.

bGAB took over the BGSU Instagram account for a week, check out their photos following the story.

“It was really a truly amazing experience,” said senior Matt Cunningham. “The whole environment mindset and openness of the couple that owned the farm and how they viewed the land was truly inspiring as an environmental science student.”

Since they are creating their own energy, the students had limited use of electricity. They also cooked their food on a wood-burning stove, learned how to re-use everything on the farm so there was no garbage, and since there was no hot running water, they had to bathe in a nearby pond. They woke up when the sun came up and when the rooster crowed.

“It was a culture shock at first, but in a good way,” said sophomore visual communications technology major Christine Nelson. “There was so much to do, but once we got used to it, it was an amazing experience.” 

The students worked on the farm the entire week. They did things like chop wood, clear brush to use for compost and build a small greenhouse. During their off times, they did some hiking and read books from the farm’s library. 

“Not being connected for a week really helped me focus on the important things in life and was reinvigorating,” Cunningham said. 

In Illinois, students volunteered at PAWS Chicago where they learned about transforming animal welfare. PAWS Chicago is committed to bringing an end to killing homeless cats and dogs. The students spent the majority of their week organizing documents, cleaning, getting tools ready that were needed for spaying and neutering and spending time with animals that were in isolation.

“A lot of animals had canine influenza virus and were kept in isolation for 30 days,” said junior communications disorders major Morgan Goodwin. “We got to play with those animals and also interact with animals that were isolated after surgery.” 

For Goodwin, this experience opened her eyes to animal welfare.

“I wasn’t aware of the issue that large cities have as far as large animal populations and the amount that are euthanized,” she said. “It’s also amazing that there are people out there who are willing to be animal foster parents.” 

New this semester, three BGSU faculty members met with the students to help them prepare for their trips so that they’d know what to expect. Dr. Nick Hennessy worked with the students who went on the sustainability trip, Dr. Ian Young worked with students on the water quality trip and Dr. Margaret Weinberger met with students on the animal welfare trip. Each lent their expertise and gave presentations to the groups.

“It was great to work with Dr. Weinberger,” Goodwin said. “She had a lot of great insight on over-population, working in animal shelters and even helped us with our reflections.”

“We weren’t really sure what our work was going to be, but once we were presented the educational portion from Dr. Young, we began to understand that we can change the way we think as far as environmental ethics,” Adkins said.

When the bGAB students return from their trips, they go through a re-orientation.

“The site leaders talk with their groups about bringing back what they learned on their service trip and how they can apply that to the BGSU community,” Hillyer said.

Students who are involved with BG Alternative Breaks are from a variety of majors. All of the students described their trips as life changing and an experience they will never forget.

“I’m in the social work program, but I didn’t know which direction to take it until after being involved in bGAB,” Hillyer said. “It has shaped me into who I am today.” 

“I was not expecting to make such good connections with people. This experience helps you learn communications and team-building skills,” Adkins said. 

“I’ve done some field experience trips before, but this one was above and beyond that,” Cunningham said.

“I was hesitant going on my first trip, but every trip has been magical. It’s a chance to learn about something you don’t know about. It’s not in a classroom with tests, you’re immersed in it and it’s hands on,” Nelson said.

“It has really helped me reflect on myself, the service that I’ve done and the root causes of the issues that we deal with. It’s been an amazing journey,” Goodwin said.