Alternative Breaks give GVSU students community service opportunities

GVL / Courtesy Kyle Doyle
A group of student leaders on the Spring 2016 Relief Efforts trip, working with St. Bernard Project NJ.

Kyle Doyle

GVL / Courtesy Kyle Doyle A group of student leaders on the Spring 2016 Relief Efforts trip, working with St. Bernard Project NJ.

Kyle Doyle

A group of active citizens takes on the challenges communities across the nation have to offer. Whether it’s helping victims of natural disasters, caring for homeless animals or assisting those with disabilities, the members of the Alternative Breaks organization are always willing to lend a hand to those in need.

Alternative Breaks at Grand Valley State University (GVAB) is a community service and leadership program that helps members of the GVSU student body become involved in different community service opportunities both locally and nationally.

“We’re a very welcoming organization that really commits to helping the community and growing and helping our members,” said April Urbanowski, president of Alternative Breaks. “We are about promoting active citizenship here on campus and what that means is creating citizens who always put the community before themselves.”

The organization, founded in 1991 with parent company Break Away, focuses on week-long service trips with the goal of bettering a community somewhere in the country.

“We go out for seven days: one day for travel, one day to explore the place you’re living,” Urbanowski said. “And there’s five days of working with a nonprofit which we have organized before hand.”

Since its beginning, GVAB has grown from one trip a year with a handful of students to 23 trips every year with more than 450 students, Urbanowski said. Each trip is in a different location with new people and a different service topic.

“My sophomore year, I went to Richmond, Virginia and we worked with elderly people,” said Sulan Artz-Iffland, site leader. “Last year, I went to Orlando, Florida for animal rescue and we worked with dogs and cats. This year, my topic is equine-assisted therapy.”

Each trip is made up of 12 students: two site leaders and 10 participants. Artz-Iffland said site leaders are like parents during the trip.

“It’s important to note that even though one is a site leader, they’re still having this brand new experience so they’re right there with the participants,” said Ryker Huizinga, vice president of public relations with GVAB. “By the end of the week, you look back and you feel like you have this small family that you’ve grown so close to you.”

Huizinga is not alone in his view. Members of GVAB return home from their trips feeling a new sense of self and having found a new group of friends.

“I wasn’t expecting the quality of friendships I was going to get from the trips,” Urbanowski said. “It was really cool to have that openness and connectedness and to spend seven days with 11 strangers you don’t know. By the seventh day you don’t want to leave their side.”

Making new friends and having fun experiences is not all there is to GVAB. According to their website, in the 2014-15 school year, GVAB contributed a combined 2,250 hours of community service toward several different projects and had an estimated economic impact of almost $50,000.

On each trip, Artz-Iffland said, members of each group sit down after every day of work to reflect on what they’ve done and what it means to them.

“We talk about what kind of service (we’ve) done during the day and dive deep into what that service means to us and why we did that and why it’s important for that organization,” Artz-Iffland said.

Week-long trips aren’t the only thing GVAB does. Throughout the year, GVAB puts on activities called “Transformation Tuesdays” and “Service Saturdays.” Additionally, GVAB offers weekend trips.

Service Saturdays are monthly service opportunities that take place within the greater Grand Rapids area. Transformation Tuesdays are monthly meetings put on by GVAB to attract more students who are interested in the program, Urbanowski said.

Students interested in joining the program can attend a Transformation Tuesday, Service Saturday or Info Night. Dates and times can be found on the GVAB website.

Participation is highly recommended.

“I would definitely recommend Alternative Breaks (to) anyone,” Artz-Iffland said. “It’s an inclusive organization that helps you make friends and if you love volunteering, traveling and meeting new people it’s a great way to do so.”