Dengler: Alternative Spring Break offers powerful insights into students

ASB1Lori Dengler, Special to Western News
A trip to New Orleans as part of Western’s Alternative Spring Break (ASB) program helped Lori Dengler, a Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry staff member, shed her preconceptions and biases about the Millennial Generation with whom she travelled and worked during the project.

I remember seeing the invitation over the years, asking for staff at Western to volunteer with Western’s Alternative Spring Break (ASB) program. Unsure of just what this opportunity might entail, I generally filed it under ‘for future consideration’ and thought no more about it.

During the last couple of years, while volunteering in London, I have come to understand service as an evolution of self, and the realization of meaning, in a world where half of us don’t even know our neighbour.

ASB offered me the opportunity to use my volunteering experience to participate at a level that would add value to the student experience, and give me the chance to get to know a demographic I work with on a daily basis in a vastly different context. The idea of traveling and serving internationally was the icing on the cake.

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As I prepared to leave, I packed bag; not only my socks and work clothes, but also my preconceptions and biases about the Millennial Generation, with whom I would be travelling.

As the trip unfolded, my preconceptions began to fall away, and the journey became an ongoing series of delightful surprises that have forever changed me, and, bolstered my comfort with the global stewardship of the next generation. This group of young people continually defied popular stereotypes – the entitled and self-involved university student, absorbed with acquisition; a generation caught between the possibility of not having enough and the reality of having too much.

As the week progressed, I watched these students release their death grip on control and move into the unique space of New Orleans. ‘Going with the flow’ became the order of the day, and preconceived notions about ‘have to’ and ‘want to’ became subjugated to the reality of service needs and priorities. Students adamant about engaging in hands-on construction of Habitat for Humanity homes were introduced, somewhat hesitantly, to neighbourhoods that needed their efforts to rebuild in a much less tangible sense of community and restore the wellness of its members.

A day spent with seniors, making Mardi Gras tokens and dancing, summoned the absolute joy of spontaneity and living in the moment. Old and young shared the secrets of resilience in stories of struggle and rejuvenation. I listened to the students reflect on this experience, completely engaged with the idea of having been of service in a way in which they had not expected. Perhaps the only evidence of their day was pinned to the button hole of Mr. Johnson’s Sunday best, but it seemed to have had all of the impact of a cross beam, hammered in to support a place to live.

A day spent in a community centre charged with providing food, clothing and the other bits of daily life to those still in need, allowed us to better understand our obligation to extend dignity along with a box of cereal. I watched students, immersed in the organizational chaos, invigorated by the interactions with clients and other volunteers.

A day spent caring for rescued horses that had been mistreated or abandoned was probably one of the Top 10 days of my life. Those beautiful animals kicked us all right in the childhood and sent us spiraling back to when days were meant for play and full of wonder and discovery. I watched as these young adults abandoned themselves to the sheer pleasure of mucking stalls, bathing and grooming the horses, and braiding their manes and tails, laughing and playing with the ‘giant puppies.’

Painting the walls of a home and digging gardens to grow food, shaped days spent together, away from the emotional immediacy of personal service, to digest and release in the less demanding rigors of physical labour. Along with the compassion, we were able to leave a visible record of our time there, verified by the furrows of well-hoed earth and matching walls.

Daily reflection on our experiences as a group is an integral part of the ASB mandate. I will forever feel privileged to have spent this introspective time with some of the brightest, most connected, invested, and caring young people that it has been my honour to meet.  Their yearning to reach out and be part of a larger, global community, and their willingness to push beyond their comfort zones to look for meaning and to make the world a better place, helped to begin to heal a somewhat jaded distance I had come to feel as an ‘almost’ senior citizen.

As they explored a renewed sense of commitment to increased awareness and inclusivity, I watched our group infused with the coziness of belonging. I believe they, also, felt a sense of surprise at the complete accord of intimacy engendered by our time together. We became part of a journey that transcended more than cultural and socio-economic borders.

Our time in New Orleans left us all with the realization that perhaps the ripples we strive to create will help to feed the waves of change in the tide that will shape our futures.

To Justin,  Alex, ‘the other’ Justin, Paven, Connor, Brie, Josh, Erin, Matt, Simmi, James, Daevina, Catherine, Cody, Susan, Zaheed, Jo, Cindy, Chandrika, Sarah, Alexa , Beli, Alanna, Hilary, CeeCee, Marquise, Florence, Julia, Rachel, Ewhan, Carolyn, Pooja, Meg, Charly, Taylor, Kate, Hilary and Christy:

I ‘heart’ you all, and I wish you each the bounty of the amazing future you will make for us. What goes around will come around, sometimes in ways we can’t yet imagine – keep putting it out there.

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Lori Dengler is the education coordinator, undergraduate and postgradiate (Pain Management), Anesthesia & Perioperative Medicine in the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry.