Thirty Illinois State students and trip leaders traveled to five different locations in Tennessee, Arkansas, and Michigan to serve communities in need May 9-15 for Illinois State’s annual Alternative Spring Break (ASB) service trips.
The groups worked with the Appalachia Service Project (ASP), Elephant Sanctuary, Crowley’s Ridge State Park, Camp Cedar Lodge, and Blandford Nature Center/Kids Food Basket. The projects included removing invasive species, cleaning trails, planting flowers, fixing fences, and roofing and siding homes.
Due to coronavirus (COVID-19) restrictions, this year’s ASB trips were postponed from March to May. Students and trip leaders were encouraged to get vaccinated before the trip. Individuals who weren’t fully vaccinated took a PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test 72 hours prior to departure and quarantined after taking the test up to the point of departure.
Illinois State senior photographer Lyndsie Schlink served as the trip advisor for the trip to east Tennessee where students roofed three houses and sided two houses during their five days working with the Appalachia Service Project to improve homes in low-income rural communities. The ASP staff members the group worked with were fully vaccinated. The following is a snapshot of the experiences the Redbirds had serving in east Tennessee.
Students climbed to new heights driving and hiking up mountains, and climbing ladders on the side of homes to install siding and up roof lines of homes to lay tin roofs in Elizabethton, Bristol, Kingsport, and Hampton.
Coming into the trip, Sigma Alpha philanthropy chair Katie Dowling, a senior agricultural communication major, was afraid of heights. “Through this experience I learned that it is OK to be uncomfortable. Getting over my fear of heights was very important. It helped that I felt comfortable to take the risk because I didn’t feel scared to show the other students that I was scared, to be vulnerable, and to shake a little, until I was comfortable on the roofs.”
Most of the students had never worked with power tools, walked on roofs, or done siding or roofing prior to this trip. The ASP staff was very patient and walked the students through each step of the roofing and siding processes each day.
“I learned patience with myself more than anything else, not to get aggravated with myself when things didn’t go right on the first try,” said senior sociology major Anna Raymond. “It is a learning experience, and I discovered that heights aren’t as scary as they seem. I learned about teamwork, trusting the people that you’re working with, and communicating with one another to back each other up to accomplish our goals.”
The service work was completed on houses in low-income rural communities where many of the homeowners don’t have insurance, their roofs leak, and their walls lack proper insulation. Through this work with the ASP the homes were winterized with additional insulation added to the walls and roofs before new siding and a tin roof were added by the students.
“Serving with ASP was an eye-opening experience,” said sophomore philosophy major William Restis. “I realized how much I’ve taken for granted and the opportunities and privilege I have. This work has humbled me a lot, seeing the condition of the houses we worked on. Those we were serving were so appreciative. The first day the homeowner wrote us a thank-you note in a card. She didn’t have much but she went out of her way to purchase and give us a thank-you card. It was nice to see the relief on her face for getting the work done to make her home safer.”
The students were able to interact face to face with three of the five homeowners whom their work was impacting. “You can make them incredibly happy by saying hello to them and listing to their stories,” Dowling said. “It was great to see the joy on the faces of the homeowners. They were so appreciative to have us do something for them that they couldn’t do for themselves.
“I never thought about my roof not being adequate enough. A secure roof is a necessity. Something so small can mean so much to someone.”
Trip leader Victor Ventura, a senior sociology major, had such a positive experience on his first ASB trip that he decided to go again this year. “My first trip was to Paradise, Texas, last spring with Camp Summit. We worked with people with special needs and disabilities. It was a really stressful experience, but as a group we overcame a lot of challenges and it was a great experience.
“That experience made me want to take on my first leadership experience in college by being a trip leader this year, and it’s showed me that I can put myself in new situations, overcome challenges, and set a good example for the other participants through my hard work and leadership.”
The students worked from 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday through Friday with an hour for lunch and a bathroom break. The evenings were spent at a house with no Wi-Fi or cell service, which meant no TV and no social media for eight to 10 hours each day. With none of the participants having met prior to the pre-trip meetings, they spent the time after dinner reflecting on their highs, lows, and ways to grow, and working through various team-building exercises led by Ventura.
The students took naps in the yard, made s’mores, played games, chased waterfalls, climbed a hill to watch the sunset, and enjoyed countless laughs, becoming friends faster than anyone could’ve anticipated.
“A week might seem like a long time, but honestly the days went by so fast. It feels like we just got here. With the friendships we made, the laughs we shared, I don’t want to leave. I can’t wait to go on a trip again next year,” Raymond said.