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VOL. 41 | NO. 11 | Friday, March 17, 2017

UT students pick service over beaches for spring break

By Vicky Travis

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We could guess that it didn’t feel much like spring for many, nor much like a break, but that was never the point.

As the University of Tennessee’s campus cleared out for spring break this week, a few hundred students didn’t go home or to the beach.

Instead, they joined UT-led groups and a number of student ministries to serve in homeless shelters in Louisville and New York, a domestic violence shelter in Charleston, South Carolina, children’s organizations in Birmingham and New York, a community garden and food bank in Raleigh, North Carolina, an animal sanctuary in Savannah, Georgia, and in relief efforts in Gatlinburg.

Five trips were coordinated through UT’s Center for Leadership and Service, and others through a number of student ministries. The above list is by no means exhaustive.

“We are Tennessee Volunteers,” says Kate Kennedy, interim director of UT’s Center for Leadership and Service. “It’s more than a verb; it’s a noun.”

The nationwide alternative break movement is growing. UT started coordinating alternative break trips in 1993 and has since volunteered more than 33,500 service hours from more than 2,350 students.

The program has grown to sponsor about 11 to 13 trips per year, up from four trips per year in 2010. This spring break week, 77 students and staff members left March 12 and will return March 18, working with five service trips through the Center.

“For longer than most of our students have been alive, UT has been engaging in collaborative community service,” Kennedy explains. “Students know about the program and know it will be quality.”

A couple of examples of ministry trips include the UT Baptist College Ministry, which left March 10 with 82 students and eight leaders to work in New York, including Manhattan, Brooklyn and Yonkers. A collaboration of ministries – College Service Project, the Wesley Foundation and The Tyson House – left Saturday for Gatlinburg to help with wildfire relief. “We’ll be working on cleaning up the stream beds, sifting through the debris and offering help wherever needed,” says Rev. Tim Kobler, Wesley Foundation director and campus minister.

“We hope to offer a helping hand when many hands are needed.”

One obstacle for the Gatlinburg crew was cold weather, which changed the original plan to clean ashes from streambeds last Saturday. That day, the group sorted donations at a warehouse in Sevierville instead.

“Every little bit helps, and especially with a group, you can make a serious impact in a few days,” explains junior Matthew Davis, UTK Wesley service intern.

“It’s taking the time to make a legitimate difference,” says the civil and environmental engineering major. “It’s nice to have more value than another beach trip, to meet new people, share your faith and share who you are.”

Tyson House chaplain John Tirro and Kobler originally planned to work with the Appalachia Service Project, a Christian ministry that does volunteer home repair in central Appalachia.

But once the wildfires swept through nearby Gatlinburg in November, the groups felt it was important to help there.

“Gatlinburg is a really great trip,” says senior Corinne Grimm, UT chapter president of College Service Project, which is an affiliate of Appalachia Service Project.

Grimm has worked in Appalachia and plans to work there for a year after she graduates in May with her degree in supply chain management.

“Work like this also means learning to adapt and overcome daily obstacles, she says. “Success is seeing a family’s reaction. There’s a goal, and even if we didn’t hit it completely, they were still so grateful for any help.”

Service has been a huge part of Grimm’s life since her mom introduced her to it.

“I’ve done a beach trip, or gone home to Memphis for break,” she adds. “But I love service and meeting new people.”

Davis agrees that serving others provides many rewards.

“It’s enabled me to develop leadership qualities and interact with new people,” says Davis, who credits service trips like this for his most lasting relationships.

“Trips light you on fire,” Davis adds. “There’s absolutely no doubt I’ll continue doing this and maybe lead trips.”

“Whenever we go, we serve those in need, providing support to local organizations, always with Christ at the center,” says Samantha Hawes, associate director of UT Baptist Collegiate Ministry.

“It is such an encouraging experience watching students interact with people different from themselves, whether native New Yorkers or immigrants to the big city, they learn the great diversity in our own country. They come back excited to serve in Knoxville and on their campus of UTK.”

Some students have called their alternative break through the Center for Leadership and Service the best thing they’ve ever done at UT, says Kennedy. During post-trip assessments, Center staff asks students to sum up their experience in two or three words.

“Eye-opening,” “rewarding,” “challenging,” and “amazing” are some frequently used words, she says.

Work may be physical and start early in the mornings. And depending on the need and direction from the organization visited, it may be interactive with children and families.

“They’re up early, learning, and it’s hard work,” Kennedy adds. “And they see the privilege they come to the table with.”

Organizations on the receiving end have loved UT Leadership and Service trip participants.

“They tell us it would take them months to do the work we do in a week,” Kennedy explains. “They tell us how excited and eager and kind the students are and how much they want to learn. We’ve never not been asked back.”