Alternative Breaks: Lighting a fire in the hearts of students
Time and again, Veronique Parmenter has seen Illinois State University’s Alternative Breaks program light a fire in the hearts of students and give them a desire to make a difference in the world.
“I encourage all of my students to do Alternative Breaks trips because it’s an opportunity to go experience something that you may not have experienced and become aware of some of the social issues that are in the United States,” she said.
As she promises the international business, accounting, and marketing students she advises, “You will grow personally. You will get so much out of it.”
Parmenter recently put her own advice into practice when she served as a trip advisor. Over spring break in March, she joined a team of 22 Illinois State students who worked as counselors at Camp Summit for the week. The trip was organized through the university’s Alternative Breaks program in partnership with the Center for Community Engagement and Service Learning.
The volunteer site in Paradise, Texas, has all the trappings of a typical summer camp, including a swimming pool, horse barn, archery range, ropes course, and arts and crafts center, but its mission is a little out of the ordinary. As stated on its website, Camp Summit seeks “to provide barrier-free outdoor experiences that promote personal growth and foster independence for children and adults with disabilities.”
Children with special needs are near and dear to Parmenter’s heart, so when she heard about Camp Summit, she knew she wanted to volunteer there.
“It’s a place where all of these kids with different disabilities — autism, ADHD, cerebral palsy, all different disabilities — can go and they’re not different. Everyone is the same. There’s no judgment. There’s no, ‘You can’t do that.’ Being able to actually experience full acceptance for those kids was amazing,” she said.
Camp Summit offers spring break activities as well as weeklong, residential summer programs for both kids and adults.
“They can start attending at six years old, and there’s no upper age limit,” Parmenter said. “You can have somebody who’s 67 attending summer camp and getting to see their friends. A lot of them come back every year. They don’t turn anyone away because of the severity of their disability, so if you are completely dependent, you can still spend a week at summer camp. It is awesome because otherwise those kids don’t necessarily have the option to ever go to summer camp. That’s great for the kids. It’s also great for the parents because it’s a break for them. It’s a weeklong break that they would not probably otherwise get.”
During the spring break trip, Parmenter worked with the teen boys attending camp. While they were unable to participate in many of the larger camp activities, they still had a blast.
“I was partnered with a boy who was completely dependent, so wheelchair, non-verbal, all pureed meals,” she said. “I figured out that he loved to spin in his chair. He knew a few signs but not a lot but by the end of the first day where we had started spinning, he developed his own sign when he wanted to go for a ride. So that was really cool.”
The experience reminded her of the importance of celebrating both large and small strides and growth in its many forms.
“Lots of times you go through life and you’re so focused on big accomplishments,” she observed. “(I liked) being able to recenter and realize again and focus again on how important and how impactful some of those small accomplishments are. Someone might think, ‘Oh, that kid scribbled on a piece of paper with a marker.’ For that kid, that’s huge. It’s awesome to see a kid who in the past has never really participated in the activities and then all of a sudden they’re participating. That transition and growth that you get to see in them is amazing. No matter what level they’re at or what disability they have, our goal is to help them grow. Whatever pace they do that at is fine.”
She also enjoyed getting to see the ISU student volunteers — especially those who may have started the week feeling overwhelmed — grow over the course of the experience.
“By Wednesday, they’re having the time of their life and they’ve settled in and (feel) comfortable,” said Parmenter, who plans to spend an additional two weeks volunteering at the camp this summer.
Camp Summit was the ISU advisor’s second experience with Alternative Breaks. Last year, she led a winter break trip to Ashby House in Kansas. The site offers an emergency homeless shelter for families as well as a substance abuse treatment program for women. In addition to offering a place of safety, the organization provides classes on a wide range of topics, including communication, debt management, public speaking, and goal setting.
“It’s an amazing place,” Parmenter shared. “It’s not just, ‘Hey, we’re going to wean you off of something and you can stay in the shelter for this long and then we’re going to pass you on your way.’ They take every approach and really prepare them to do well in their futures.”
As a volunteer, Parmenter worked in the organization’s warehouse organizing new donations of clothing and furniture. Some of the ISU student participants also helped paint and redo the floors in some of the shelter’s apartments. Perhaps the most powerful part of the trip came one evening during the group’s nightly reflection session, which gives participants the opportunity to dig deep and talk about what they’re learning and what’s affecting them.
“Ashby House actually had three of the residents come in and tell their stories and tell about how Ashby House has been helping them through everything. That was really impactful,” Parmenter said.
Such reflection experiences help students evaluate their growth over the course of the trip and gain more insights into what they have encountered. Parmenter also noted the sessions help students see how the project “relates to what they can do in the future and what they see going on back home.” She then explained that it is important for students to see tangible ways they personally can make a difference in the world.
“They think, ‘This is a huge issue, and I don’t have the ability to make a huge, huge impact,’ but that’s not how things change,” she said. “Things change by starting off small and that grows and grows and grows. Seeing students kind of realize that and get that little bit of start is so encouraging to me. You might think that you can’t make that kind of an impact at home, but you can. Little things can make a huge difference and those are things you can do right now.”
Parmenter also spoke of the value of encountering a different setting.
“Being exposed to that can help someone really understand and then develop empathy and have the initiative to do something to change it,” she said. “For me with Alternative Breaks, it’s really, really encouraging to me to see this generation taking the initiative to help other people because I feel that’s what we’re supposed to do. Society should help other people, and we should take care of each other.”
She acknowledged that some students are still hesitant to participate in Alternative Breaks because they feel like they will miss out on the typical spring break experience. Instead, she says there is much to be gained from going on a service-oriented trip.
“I don’t feel like you’re giving up a break. You’re getting an experience that is amazing, and you’re going to make new friends on the trip. It’s a life experience that when you get out of school you might not have the opportunity for, so take that opportunity now,” she said.
Noting students can get involved in many different types of trips ranging from trash cleanups to construction projects to outreach opportunities working with underprivileged kids, Parmenter stresses that there is something for everyone that is looking to make a difference.
“There’s something to suit everyone through Alternative Breaks. I just think everybody should try it. It doesn’t have to be a full break trip or a summer trip. They do weekend trips too. I think that’s how a lot of students start. They do a weekend and realize, ‘This is something I want to be involved in,’ and then they do a weeklong trip. It’s an amazing opportunity. I think that every student that goes will grow over the course of that week and probably in ways they didn’t think of or didn’t expect, but it’s always good.”
Alternative Breaks relies on Illinois State faculty and staff to serve as trip advisors for each trip, just as Parmenter has done in the past. If you are interested in more information, visit http://communityengagement.illinoisstate.edu/students/alternative-breaks.
The social issues for our 2020 trips will be announced in August when applications open. Trip destinations will be revealed during pre-trip meetings.
To fill out an application for an upcoming Alternative Breaks trip or to learn about trip leadership positions, visit communityengagement.illinoisstate.edu/students/alternative-breaks.
Applications will open August 19 and are due October 21.