Greg Opseth spent his spring break in Montego Bay, Jamaica with eight other Buena Vista University students, but they did not have the typical "fun in the sun" experience that many college students have on that traditional rite of spring.
He was one of 27 BVU students who traveled to distant places - Mexico, San Francisco and Jamaica - for an alternative spring break program to work on service projects to help people are who are less fortunate.
Greg, a sophomore psychology major from Alden, Minn., and his group volunteered at two orphanages in Montego Bay, an experience that was especially meaningful for him because his father, Kevin, had worked at one of the same orphanages 13 years ago on a mission trip with a church group.
"When my dad went to Jamaica in 1995, I wanted to go but was too young and would not have been much help then," says Greg. "I felt very fortunate to follow in his footsteps because he is one of my biggest role models."
BVU's student-driven spring break program, entitled "Alternative Week of Off-site Learning" (AWOL) has involved over 300 students in the nine years since it began. Greg is the vice-president of AWOL for Student MOVE (Mobilizing Outreach Volunteer Efforts), the organization that oversees AWOL and other service programs.
The AWOL program is the centerpiece of student volunteerism at BVU, says Ashley Farmer, BVU's director of community service. Its mission is to immerse students in different cultures, to heighten their social awareness and to advocate lifelong social action through service.
To finance the AWOL trips, Farmer says, the students hold fundraisers (raising a total of over $6,400 this year); receive grants from a substantial endowment established by the late Rev. Henry Eggink (a former professor of philosophy and religion at BVU) to promote student mission work; and may also do some individual fundraising.
The purpose of the trip to Mexico was to foster a better understanding of the immigration issues and provide service and outreach through the Presbyterian Border Ministry.
Students worked in Nogales and Agua Prieta, Mexico, and Douglas, Ariz., says Ken Meissner, BVU's chaplain, one of the staff advisors who accompanied the students.
"In Nogales, students served a meal to men who were deported from the United States, and were mostly destitute, homeless and unemployed," he notes. In Douglas, they did service projects at Frontier de Christo, a Presbyterian Border Ministry where Leisha Reynolds, a 2007 BVU graduate, works.
A few of the 13 students on the trip volunteered at the Migrant Resource Center (MRC) at the border, offering food, clothing and other assistance to individuals who had been deported or who were returning to their homes in Mexico after an unsuccessful journey over the border.
For BVU junior Katia Barragan, the trip provided another aspect of work she has done on two previous BVU-sponsored trips to the region. During the January interim this year, she spent two weeks volunteering at Agua Prieta and Douglas, doing much of the same work the students did there this spring.
"When U.S. Immigration drops people off at the border, they walk into Mexico and the MRC is the first thing they see as they cross the border," says Katia, an art and Spanish major from Storm Lake whose family is originally from Mexico. "We provided them with food, clothing, informed them about their rights as human beings and provided information about shelters in town."
"The most meaningful part of this experience was the conversations I had with the migrants, listening to their stories - from them and not the news media - hearing about their concerns and wanting to achieve the 'American dream' and seeing their sadness as they spoke about the abuses and struggles they had been through," says Katia.
"One of the most powerful activities the students experienced together was the Cross vigil at the border," says Meissner. "Frontier de Christo prepared over 150 crosses with the names of individuals who have died near Douglas while trying to cross the border. With a group of 25, we began our journey on the Pan American Highway in Douglas with a prayer and then walked along the side of the road, lifted up a cross, shouted out the name printed on the cross and the group would then shout out 'presente.' This was to acknowledge that the individual was not forgotten and that in our collective efforts, we would fight for justice and rights for all people."
The students bound for Jamaica signed up for this trip unaware of their ultimate destination. It was billed as "mystery trip" with only the theme listed - environmental, social and poverty issues.
"We worked at two different orphanages, so the overriding purpose of the trip was the concept of child welfare," says Dr. Stan Bochtler, professor of education, one of the advisors who accompanied the students. The group worked two days at the West Haven orphanage, a facility for residents (about 8 to 31 years of age) with significant physical, mental, emotional, behavioral and social challenges. They also worked two days at Blossom Gardens Child Care Center/Orphanage, which served younger children who were in the "normal" range developmentally, he adds.
"Working at the two facilities was a humbling experience because you realize that the challenges we face on a day-to-day basis are pretty insignificant compared to what these kids and young adults must deal with all of the time," says Bochtler. "Most of the BVU students were emotionally drained by the end of the day."
"At West Haven, I largely interacted with the residents and helped them with tasks that needed to be done," notes Greg Opseth. "It was very clear that what they wanted was for someone to give them their undivided attention. This was very evident on the first day when our bus pulled into the gated entrance of the facility and was immediately mobbed by the residents. Once we got out of the bus, they were attached to us like glue. They wanted to take us all around and show us everything."
This was Greg's second AWOL trip, having traveled to Costa Rica in 2007 to perform projects at a school in the small village of Tortuguero. "I have come to realize that my two hands can impact another person's life forever. It doesn't have to be something extravagant. It can be as simple as spending one-on-one time with a child."
Five students who traveled to San Francisco focused on hunger and homelessness issues, using the theme "The Pursuit of Happyness," based on the movie starring Will Smith.
The students worked at Glide Memorial Methodist Church, which provides three nutritious meals daily to the city's poor and homeless. The students helped serve over 3,500 people. The other service site was Raphael House, a family shelter where the students prepared and served a meal to its 42 residents.
In addition to seeing how the facilities operate, the students also learned about the 'politics' of homelessness in the San Francisco area, says Deb McConahie, director of residence life and one of the staff advisors for the group. "The idea that people have different circumstances and the ways in which the need to take advantage of the services available to them proved to be great discussion topics for the students."
At Glide, the BVU group also worked alongside students from Friends University in Wichita, Kansas, who were accompanied by their advisor Jaclyn Hugg, a 2005 BVU graduate who is the director of cross cultural programs.
"The most intense experience that a few of our students experienced was the culture shock of seeing so many homeless people on the streets, especially around Glide and our youth hostel where we were staying for the week," says Chelsey Uhlarik, a senior biology major from Omaha, Neb. "It was a struggle for us to help as many people as we could in the short amount of time that we had. There were still so many that needed our help that we couldn't get to.
"When we were walking on the streets and had homeless people express their gratitude saying 'God bless,' I felt that we were making a difference," she said.
Chelsey had traveled to Akumal, Mexico in March 2007 to help prepare the beaches for sea turtle nesting and tested the water for contamination. "My AWOL experiences have given me a new perspective on the world," she says.