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Individuals pose outside of a building

Redbirds on Alternative Summer Break 2019 served at Living Positive Kenya in Ngong Hills, Kenya.

Alternative Breaks celebrates 20 years of making a difference

In March 2000, Illinois State University students climbed into large vans and headed out on service trips during their spring break. Not only did their work impact the communities in which they volunteered, but it was also the beginning of an important, long-standing program at Illinois State University.

To date, 3,483 students have participated in 122 Alternative Breaks trips to 72 unique locations, completing 115,306 hours of service work.

This coming March, Alternative Breaks celebrates 20 years of changing lives.

Jill Benson, associate dean in the Dean of Students Office, and her former graduate assistant Angela (Gray) Girton launched the program in 2000, combining an existing Illinois State service trip with the Alternative Breaks model through the Break Away organization.

The first year included 45 students on four spring break trips: Madison, Florida; Melbourne, Florida; Bridgeton, New Jersey; and Warm Springs, Georgia. To date, 3,483 students have participated in 122 Alternative Breaks trips to 72 unique locations, completing 115,306 hours of service work.

“The growth and longevity have far exceeded our initial expectations,” Benson said. “The program foundation has stayed the same, which is a strong testament to the benefit of a solid theoretical foundation and intended outcomes.”

Alternative Breaks trips are predominantly student-led experiences with student leaders handling on-site logistics, problem-solving as necessary, and leading participants in both discussions of social issues and nightly reflections.

Over the last 19 years, the program expanded at Illinois State to also include international trips during winter and summer breaks as well as occasional weekend trips. In 2018, 194 students participated in 13 different trips.

Annie Weaver, coordinator of student volunteer opportunities at the Center for Community Engagement and Service Learning, has coordinated the Alternative Breaks program at Illinois State University for the last eight years. Weaver came to Illinois State after launching the Alternative Breaks program at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida.

Students post on a porch near a large pile of debris

A group of students on Alternative Break in 2006 did hurricane cleanup work in New Orleans.

“The reason I am in my career is because of Alternative Breaks,” said Weaver. “I had my eyes opened to what a small group of students could accomplish in a short amount of time and the bonds that could be made between one another and with the community they are serving. I wanted to be able to provide that for all students.”

In 2019, Weaver worked with leadership at the Center for Community Engagement and Service Learning and the Division of Student Affairs to change the fee structure for Alternative Breaks trips. The new fee structure, a sliding scale based on a student’s financial aid information, helps make the trips more affordable for more students.

Looking ahead, Weaver hopes for continued growth in the program. “I hope to see at least 400 students participating in an Alternative Break each year,” she said. “I would also love to see our student leaders get credit for their experience, and I’d love to have a class for leaders to formalize our training.”

An Alternative Breaks 20th anniversary celebration will be taking place on March 22, 2020, in conjunction with the Encore event (trip participant recaps) for this year’s spring break trips. Alternative Breaks alumni are invited to attend both the celebration and a special Alternative Breaks Alumni Service Day on March 21.

If you’re part of an Alternative Break alumni team that plans to reunite at the March celebration, we would love to hear your story! Please contact Annie Weaver.