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Alternative Spring Break pulls volunteers out of college ‘bubble’

Maggie Wingate

Maggie Wingate, far right, and other Alternative Spring Break students from Illinois State at work in South Carolina earlier this month.

For many college seniors, spring break means an escape to Panama City Beach or South Padre Island or, for the minimalists, catching up on sleep and binge-watching TV shows on Netflix.

For Illinois State senior Maggie Wingate, spring break was spent in South Carolina, helping girls scarred by sexual abuse, cleaning out and painting their group home, sharing an air mattress with two other student volunteers, and getting a grand total of 26 hours of sleep over eight days.

“But I didn’t care,” said Wingate, a speech pathology major from New Lenox. “It was so much fun to just be in the moment, outside of the ‘ISU Bubble,’ learning about issues in the world and trying to make my difference.”

Wingate was one of about 230 students who went on Alternative Spring Break trips this month, together banking 11,638 hours of service. STATEside sat down with Wingate and two other Alternative Break students to discuss what they called a life-changing experience and a must on any student’s ISU bucket list.

Chase Bredeen

Sophomore Chase Bredeen and one of the campers at Camp Summit in Argyle, Texas, over spring break.

Their trips, they said, were about more than just civic engagement, or something to put on a resume later. The adventures were about small moments. Like when sophomore Chase Bredeen bonded all week at Camp Summit in Argyle, Texas, with an autistic boy with Down syndrome who he was told wouldn’t talk much—only to hear the boy say his name over and over on the last day.

Or when Wingate got through to a 13-year-old girl who’d been acting out and getting into trouble all week. The girl apologized, and Wingate gave her some advice—look ahead, take it one day at a time, and smile. Thinking she’d brushed it off, the girl stopped Wingate on the last day and said she’d follow the advice.

“That moment right there changed everything,” Wingate said. “We changed someone’s life—in a week.”

Best Alternative Breaks program in U.S.

Alternative Breaks (AB) is a student-run organization that works with the Leadership and Service unit of the Dean of Students office. Illinois State’s AB chapter was voted Best Program of the Year in 2012 by its peers in Break Away, a national organization with more than 100 college AB chapters.

Illinois State’s 2013 travelers, led by a team of 36 student leaders, split up between five sites: exploring civil rights and discrimination in Selma, Alabama; empowering underprivileged youths in Birmingham, Alabama; cleaning up the Mississippi River near Memphis; helping sexual abuse victims and neglected animals in South Carolina; and helping those with disabilities at Camp Summit in Texas. Participants did between four and six days of service each and got one free day to explore and have fun.

Each participant has a personal reason for joining. Bredeen, a sophomore management and organizational leadership major from Tremont, did a lot of hands-on community service while in high school but got busy at Illinois State with more bureaucratic work in student government.

Camp Summit gave him an opportunity. He and the 46 others on his trip worked around the clock on little sleep with their campers, developing a new awareness of disability issues as an overlooked aspect of diversity. Along the way, Bredeen said, the Illinois State students forged deep friendships with each other, especially during the nightly reflection session—a key part of AB.

“There was a lot of crying, a lot of comforting going on within the reflection groups,” Bredeen said. “It was definitely one of the most impactful weeks of my college life so far.”

Rachel Giles

Junior Rachel Giles returned to Selma, Alabama, for her Alternative Spring Break.

Junior Rachel Giles returned to Selma for the second-straight year, this time as an AB bus leader, on a mission to become educated about civil rights history, revitalize community centers, and mentor youths. Giles “fell in love” with the Freedom Foundation last year and wanted to work with the group again.

The 45 students on the Selma trip were all from Greek organizations at Illinois State. Fraternities and sororities face their own negative stereotypes on campus, Giles said, and the inspiring trip to Selma showed Greek students that they can fight back against stereotypes.

“I was proud, because everyone could have been somewhere else that week,” said Giles, an English education major. “Seeing them give up their time to come work with these kids, seeing their interaction with these kids, that was pretty special.”

Alternative Spring Break students come back with their eyes opened about the world around them, and more aware of their actions and their thoughts on important social issues, Giles said.

“When else are you gonna get a chance to go away for a week for a minimal amount of money and have this very unique experience?” Giles said. “It’s just one of those things you have to do before you get out of college.”

Ryan Denham can be reached at