Relationships are a two-way street for ASB participants

Special to Western News

Western’ Alternative Spring Break (ASB) has partnered with Outreach360 since 2005, sending students to teach in community schools in the Dominican Republic.

If you’re reading this, Melissa Ostrowski wants you to know, now is your chance.

Alternative Spring Break (ASB) has been a Western tradition for more than a decade, seeing thousands of students, staff and faculty roll up their sleeves and engage in community-oriented service learning over Reading Week, spending their days off helping out either at home or abroad.

While February is far off on the radar, application deadlines are fast approaching. If you’ve ever considered getting involved with ASB, now’s your chance to jump on board, said Ostrowski, Global Experiential Learning Coordinator with the Student Success Centre.

“Over the years, (the program) has grown exponentially. We went from five students and two staff members and, this year, we will have close to 200 student positions or student team leaders, and 20 staff and faculty team leader positions,” she said.

“I could say all of these things, like it’s an amazing, eye-opening experience that opens students’ eyes, hearts and minds to different perspectives. But it’s more.”

ASB isn’t about simply stepping into another community to help out, be it in Peru, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, or even Thunder Bay, Ont. It’s an experience that builds relationships, intercultural communication and competency, while nurturing a variety of perspectives and worldviews, Ostrowski stressed.

This opinion is echoed by ASB’s partners abroad.

“When Western students come, they honestly seemed excited to be with the kids, and to be here,” said Apryl Gibson, Outreach360’s team director in the Dominican Republic.

Western has partnered with Outreach360 since 2005, sending students to teach in community schools.

“The students very much roll with the punches; they adapt quickly, and they’re very happy once they get here. The thing that really intrigued me, and really impressed me about them, was they were quite inquisitive. They had a lot of questions about our involvement in the community, what type of development we do,” Gibson added, noting she later heard students discussing what they could do, and continue doing, once their week was up.

Outreach360 operates on a ‘poco a poco’ principle – meaning ‘little by little,’ she said.

“The cumulative effect of the 19,000 volunteers that have gone through the organization makes a difference. And the student volunteers who are here for a week make a difference as well, because they’re forming relationships and getting the kids excited about learning and about English,” Gibson continued.

“The kids love when they come and the kids teach them things – there’s so much people can learn from communities here. We have such an appreciation for the long partnership we’ve had with Western.”

ASB has likewise enjoyed a long partnership with New Orleans and Area Habitat for Humanity (NOAHH), sending student volunteers since 2008.

“Western’s student volunteers have worked on a number of different projects with us. They helped us, most recently, prepare for some of the stuff we were doing for the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina,” said Avery Strada, NOAHH Director of Volunteer Services.

“To commemorate the anniversary, we built 10 houses in 10 days, and when the students were here last year in February, they helped us prep some of the sites, digging foundations. The great thing about that is, they were really a part of what we do – they were a part of our commemoration, even though they weren’t here for the blitz build. And that’s really important to us,” she continued.

The work students do is critical – and Strada wants to make it clear – no matter what project Western’s volunteers are involved in, be it construction or restoring parts of an established home, they are radically changing the life of a family.

“We are so grateful for the time the volunteers give. Post-Hurricane Katrina, colleges and universities have come down have given thousands and thousands of hours, and that’s probably our largest demographic of volunteers. Our city could not be built without them,” Strada said.

“Our goal is to make them understand there’s something they can do here, but they can also go back home and make a difference in their own community. Take what you learn here, and take it home, and find something that sparks an interest and gets you engaged in the community.”

And this is exactly the ASB outcome Ostrowski loves to observe.

“We have a three-hour, post-ASB workshop and it’s amazing to have everyone in the room to chat and see the common themes, regardless of where they went for ASB,” Ostrowski said.

“It’s interesting to stand back and have students realize it’s not necessarily about where you go, that you have that eye-opening experience, regardless of location. Our projects are community driven, and the needs are identified by the community. We don’t decide what to do. But then students come back home, and sometimes they realize that things need to be done differently here,” she said.

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JOIN THE TEAM. Interested staff and faculty can attend an Alternative Spring Break (ASB) information session at 5 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 17, in University Community Centre, room 147A. Staff and faculty team leader applications are due Sept. 23; student team leader applications are due Oct. 12; student participant applications are due Oct. 20. For information, visit the ASB website, asb.uwo.ca/.