By Nicole Reisinger
For the Mitzpeh

Benjamin Bryer and friends on a Maryland Hillel Alternative Break. Photo courtesy of Benjamin Bryer
Benjamin Bryer and friends on a Maryland Hillel Alternative Break. Photo courtesy of Benjamin Bryer

Spring break is upon us, and some students are either catching up on some well-deserved sleep, bingeing the newest show on Netflix, working on class assignments trying to get ahead, or going abroad to explore someplace new.

Some students dedicate this break to service by participating in Alternative Break through Maryland Hillel.

When this university breaks for winter term and spring break, students can choose from a variety of international and domestic locations for their volunteer program.

From San Diego to Israel – and everywhere in between, including Las Vegas, Guatemala, Detroit, and New Orleans – students engage with local communities to gain hands-on experience and learn about the local challenges.

The Alternative Break program aims to encourage a connection to service and promote hands-on volunteering while practicing Jewish values, said MJ Kurs-Lasky, director of student life.

Currently, Maryland Hillel is running a program in San Diego that discusses border issues, one in New Orleans that highlights injustice in the criminal justice system, and another in Detroit that focuses on urban renewal.

This past winter term, Alternative Break sponsored trips to Guatemala and Las Vegas. These two trips highlighted social justice in the form of education and economics in Las Vegas and environmental sustainability in Guatemala.

Katie Hamelburg, a senior Jewish studies major, was a co-leader for her group’s trip to Comalapa, Guatemala.

“I’ve always know that social justice is extremely important to me,” said Hamelburg.

While abroad, the group worked through an established nonprofit Peace Corps project called Long Way Home that worked in alternative construction. They helped alongside volunteers to construct schools out of sustainable materials to promote education and provide employment opportunities for people in the village.

They would pack tires to build walls, use plastic recyclables such as bottles to make windows, and smash cans and piles of trash to use as building materials.

“They don’t have a trash collection system,” said Hamelburg, so constructing buildings out of refuse is the most economic and environmentally sustainable option.

Benjamin Bryer, like Hamelburg, co-led his trip to Las Vegas, Nevada.

“Each trip is led by two fellow co-leaders,” said to Kurs-Lasky. They plan every aspect of the trip, including “recurring logistical pieces” from the program’s previous trip the year before and possible new excursions for the group.

Bryer, a sophomore public health major, said his “favorite part about planning the trip was reaching out and networking with people. It was really cool to see that people were excited and intrigued about the purpose of our trip.”

In Las Vegas, Bryer and his group learned about the challenges the district faces with improving its education system. Nevada has the third worst high school graduation rate in the country, with only 70 percent of students successfully graduating, compared to New Mexico with 68.5 percent and the District of Columbia with 61.4 percent, according to the Las Vegas Sun.

The group visited a newly established charter school, a product of a legislative push to insight the development  of a better school system, for three out of the seven days of their trip. The school taught kindergarten through eighth grade, and the group attended classes with the kids and formed relationships with them as well as the principal.

Wanting to make the biggest possible impact, the group met with the superintendent of the school system, the Las Vegas Parent Teacher Association, and the student body president of the Community College of Southern Nevada to get a wider perspective of the education system’s challenges.

“I didn’t want to go across the country just to do something that I could do in my backyard,” said Bryer.

To make sure their visit had a long-term impact on the kids, the group made posters and set up five stations in the school cafeteria that talked about a specific aspect of campus life, ranging from academics to sports to clubs.

“It was really, really inspiring,” said Bryer, “it was a way for these kids to ask us about college life because some of them don’t have people in their lives to ask.”


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