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This week 143 University of Utah students will devote more than 5,000 hours of service around the western U.S. and Canada through the U’s Alternative Breaks program organized through the Bennion Community Services Center.

By Gideon Tolman

This week, 143 University of Utah students will devote more than 5,000 hours of service around the western U.S. and Canada through the U’s Alternative Breaks program organized through the Bennion Community Services Center.

Alternative Breaks are more than an opportunity to travel during spring and fall breaks — the mission is to engage the U community in volunteerism and experiential learning while promoting holistic wellness and lifelong service by dispatching teams of students to distant communities during school breaks.

The Alternative Break Program started at the U in 1997. The program grew from a handful of participants and a couple of trips to more than 18 service trips during fall and spring breaks each year. In response to student demand, program capacity more than doubled last year, as more than 100 additional trip spots and nine new trips were added. Last year, Break Away, the national Alternative Breaks affiliate, recognized the U’s program as National Program of the Year.

“Alternative Breaks is one of the most intensive developmental leadership programs on campus,” said Kris Fenn, Bennion Center Alternative Breaks coordinator. “Students get hands-on experiences and are able to apply what they learn in the classroom to real-life experiences and vice versa.”

Trip participants have said Alternative Breaks have been some of the most influential experiences of their college careers.

“My fellow participants and I have had deep and intense dialogues with a variety of community organizations across the west about how to positively engage and influence these social issues,” said senior Nisha Kavalam, who has led three Alternative Breaks trips as a student leader and currently serves as the U’s Alternative Breaks chair, coordinating all aspects of the program. “Our hope is that this immersive experience serves as a catalyst for students toward life-long action and civic engagement. As we head out on the road, we’re excited to see the next generation of community organizers and activities emerge.”

2015 volunteers are involved with one of 13 trips spread across the west and will serve around a variety of issues:

Animal Advocacy and Rehabilitation
Kanab, Utah

Volunteers receive a great introduction to animal wellness and advocacy. They will spend the week volunteering with Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, the nation’s largest no-kill animal sanctuary. Best Friends works tirelessly to advocate for, rehabilitate and provide a home for homeless pets and wildlife. Volunteers will learn about breed discrimination, what it takes to maintain a sanctuary and explore the relationship between humankind and the animal kingdom. Projects include socializing with puppies, infrastructure cleaning and grounds keeping and connecting with many species of animals.

Coastal Ecosystem Restoration
Arcata, California

Volunteers help restore the dune ecosystem as they learn more about threats to coastal habitat in northern California. Volunteers will work in teams on projects focused on invasive species removal and habitat restoration. They will explore the coastline and beaches of northern California, see 100-foot trees at Redwood National Park and experience living in harmony with the environment.

Coastal Ecosystem Restoration
Point Reyes, California

Point Reyes National Seashore is home to a lush variety biodiversity. Volunteers will spend a week in beautiful scenery, stay in a boat house and use some elbow grease to remove invasive species from the area and perform trail and park maintenance. This is a physically demanding trip with some hard labor, but volunteers will leave knowing that hard work makes a significant difference in the Point Reyes habitat.

Community Health
Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

Volunteers will receive an in-depth look at community health initiatives. This trip explores services and organizations working with mental health, homelessness, reproductive health, the harm reduction model and HIV/AIDS, ranging from standard service provision models to more radical models. Examples of volunteer opportunities on this trip include packaging condoms, serving meals to supportive housing residents, socializing and interacting with those affected by mental health issues and sorting/repackaging food items and donations to organizations. Volunteers will also participate in multiple education tours and listen to a variety of speakers.

Empowering At-Risk Youth
Las Vegas, Nevada

This is the maiden voyage of this reimagined trip. This experience will take students through the multi-faceted world of youth support services. Trip participants will work with a variety of nonprofit partners, focusing on the intersection of youth homelessness, access to education, youth well-being and development and addiction. Volunteer opportunities include food distribution, meal preparation and distribution service, assembling hygiene packets and sorting and preparing donations for youth.

Hollywood, California

Volunteers will discover the many facets of HIV and AIDS by working with one of the country’s largest HIV and AIDS nonprofit organizations, AIDS Project LA. This trip also partners with a number of other HIV and AIDS-focused nonprofits. Volunteers will explore various types of support and services available to those affected by HIV & AIDS, including pet therapy, emotional support, food security and other community-based programs.

Seattle, Washington

Volunteers will explore the complex issue of homelessness and its intersection with race, class, gender, sexual orientation, ability, age, mental health, etc. Volunteer opportunities include preparing and serving meals, setting up nightly beds for a shelter, sorting donations and understanding the continuum of care for homeless populations in King County.

Hunger and Food Justice
Seattle, Washington

Volunteers will learn what the concept of “food justice” looks like, in practice, and the state of hunger in communities at large. They will work with local organizations that specialize in food production, distribution and access. Other opportunities include discussing current food policies, assistance policies and the state of hunger in the U.S.

Immigration, Poverty and Health
San Diego, California

Volunteers will explore the salient issues of immigration, poverty and health from a community-based perspective. This trip focuses on several topics such as healthcare, socioeconomic status, access to education, privilege and political climate among immigrant and impoverished populations. Volunteer projects include partnering with community centers in tutoring programs and working in community gardens, water rescue stations and more.

LGBTQ/Human Rights
San Francisco, California

Volunteers will explore the LGBTQ community by delving into the intersections of race, class, ability and gender and understand how these intersections may determine a person’s needs, access and social acceptance. They will work with organizations that strive to create a safe, positive and inclusive space for marginalized populations.

Marine Conservation
Santa Cruz, California

Volunteers will spend time on the beach while learning about the effects of oceans on humans, wildlife and the economy. They will get up close and personal with marine life while volunteering with organizations that strive to educate people on the reciprocal relationship between oceans and people. Volunteers will visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium to bring together the immersive experiences from the week.

Urban Environmentalism
Portland, Oregon

Volunteers will spend the week touring and learning about this environmentally conscious city. Volunteer opportunities include working with organizations to help clean and recycle bikes for the city’s youth, discussing the impact of food production on the community and environment, rejuvenating native spaces and reflecting on the practice of environmentalism in an urban setting.

Women and Poverty
Denver, Colorado

Volunteers will explore the unique relationships between gender and poverty and what the services that support this intersection look like on a community level. Trip participants work with organizations such as Work Options for Women, Wings and various women’s empowerment and access-focused nonprofits. Participants will reflect on the relationship between gender, resources, access, advocacy, privilege and poverty both locally and nationally.


Students are not the only ones involved with Alternative Breaks. Successful trip execution includes a university staff partner who works in tandem with each trip’s student leader to plan, organize and carry out the week of travel and service. Alternative Breaks are great professional development and mentoring opportunities for faculty and staff. Those interested should contact Kris Fenn to sign up to be trip staff partners for next year’s trips.An information session will be held as part of Community Engagement Day Wednesday, April 29 from 2-3 p.m. in Union 312. Keep apprised of opportunities and application deadlines through the Alternative Breaks Facebook page and website and check out this video to get a vision of the Alternative Break experience.