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Redbird’s eye-opening Alternative Break experience makes impact on journey after graduation

two students staining swingset

Christine Gesell (lower left) stains a playground with a fellow Redbird student during her Alternative Spring Break.

Illinois State University Redbird Christine Gesell ’19 shares her Center for Community Engagement and Service Learning experience during the last semester of her senior year.

Although Gesell had been involved on campus through organizations such as Alpha Phi Omega, Illinois State’s service fraternity, and ISU Leads, in addition to serving as president of the Graphic Communications Education Association, it was not until her final semester as a Redbird that she was able to experience something she said she wished she would have taken advantage of earlier during her time as a student. In hopes of expanding her passion for service as well as reaching a helping hand beyond the University, she sought out a civic engagement volunteering opportunity called Alternative Breaks (AB).

Following the acceptance of her application for the Alternative Spring Break program, Gesell flew to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, for her last spring break. There she spent a week with International Children’s Outreach (ICO), a nonprofit organization that aims to enhance the livelihood of children faced with poverty. She experienced a series of challenges and rewards, participating in service projects as well as bonding with both the students and staff of the preschool.

Gesell could not believe how difficult it was to perform simple tasks with young children. “Counting, reading, going to the bathroom, eating a snack. It was an eye-opening experience to see how understaffed they were at the day care,” she said. “They make the best with what resources they have available.”

The constant interaction with students, whether it was playtime or aiding with class assignments, was the most gratifying part of the trip for Gesell. Not only did it put a smile on the children’s faces, it brought a sense of gratitude and relief toward the hardworking faculty.

Every day Gesell felt a sense of excitement to be around kids and to give back just a few hours to the individuals who provide for the school and livelihood of the community on a daily basis. Within a week, Gesell helped restain two playground areas and planted flowers at the entrance of the building. These tasks created a bright, welcoming appearance to an already comforting place for the families of the school.

The Alternative Break developed her joy for service and opened her eyes to the flaws of the education system in general. Despite a lack of supplies and resources at ICO, the children had the privilege to learn daily both compassion and determination from the teachers.

After coming back from her trip, Gesell also realized that AB presents social justice as a way for college students to make a direct impact. Co-plane/trip leader Oliv Er Phreykz agreed and expressed admiration and respect for Gesell as he reflected on his experience working with her. For a trip like this to be successful it is essential that each individual communicates effectively and participates to the best of their ability.

“Christine was a bundle of positivity and thoughtfulness during our trip to Fort Lauderdale,” Phreykz said. “If I am to be honest, I was rather stressed throughout most of the trip due to various responsibilities I had. Her presence always put me at ease.”

Phreykz, now serving as the student AB director, encourages students to take advantage of AB for the opportunity to gain “leadership skills, to work with diverse communities, foster wholesome relationships, and travel.” Not only has he been able to understand his values better from this experience, he has learned his passion for education inequity.

Since graduating, Gesell moved to downtown Chicago to work as the associate account manager for Specialty Print Communications and plans to dive into volunteer opportunities around the city this fall. Seeking a long-term commitment, she wants to volunteer at an after-school or big sister program where she can follow the growth of the students she is able to mentor.

Students interested in applying for Alternative Break programs or learning more ways to make a #RedbirdImpact can check out the Center for Community Engagement and Service Learning website.