One of the perks of selecting the spring semester as my exchange semester was that I would be able to experience the famous, Spring Break. Growing up in Australia, I would frequently watch American teen TV shows and films which would depicted college students during Spring Break. Thus it was a concept I was familiar with and excited about. Back in Australia we have a “mid-semester break” but this is generally a week where students catch up on their studies, study for exams and rest. Prior to researching my options for Spring Break I assumed that most students went to Florida and partied similar to the film Spring Breakers. This option didn’t really appeal to me because of financial reasons, so I went on the search for alternatives which would still allow me to have fun whilst seeing more of the United States. One of my friends was taking a communications class and her teacher informed her about the alternative spring break trips. She then discussed it with me, we looked at all the different locations which were offered, and we signed up. Prior to arriving in the United States I had no intention of travelling to the MidWest as I did not think the opportunity would arise and in addition to this, it is not exactly the typical tourist destination. We were both excited about the idea of the trip but did not know what to expect.
SUNY Oswego’s alternative spring break’s are organised through Habitat for Humanity, which is a non-profit organisation. I had heard of this organisation and the worthwhile work they do, so I felt comfortable and safe embarking on this trip. Our group was going to Iowa so we were volunteering with the Iowa Heartland Habitat for Humanity. This specific location builds between 10-12 homes a year which is an incredible movement to be part of.
We travelled through the night in an attempt to preserve whatever sleep patterns we had prior to the trip, and arrived refreshed and ready to explore our new home for the week. We were staying in Cedar Falls, Iowa, in a United Methodist Church, this church was more like a community centre rather than a church. It had modern facilities that we were able to utilise including a basketball court, cinema, games room, three kitchens and general common areas. We spent the day unpacking, becoming familiar with our new setting, preparing for the week ahead and getting to know each other.
Day 2 marked the beginning of our work week and thus our routines were established. We woke at around 7:30am, ate breakfast as a team, travelled to the site and commenced work at 8:30am. This first day we completed a project in the community. We pulled down a fence which surrounded the oldest property in the area. This was a sensational effort on our part, as initially we were predicted to complete the job in three days, we did it in one. We left the site at 3:30pm and spent the remainder of the afternoon exploring the main street in Cedar Falls and visited the University of Northern Iowa. Our evening traditions emerged which consisted of watching a crazy number of The Cleveland Show episodes, whilst playing trivia board games, before bed at 11pm.
Once we arrived on site, we were advised that we would be working in the warehouse and creating the exterior frames of a house. I was clueless about framing but fortunately we had an excellent instructor. Framing is reading a wall plan, following the measurements, doing
some basic calculations, cutting the wood to size, fitting the wood together, and nailing the wood together. It’s quite a process. The first day it took each team all day just to complete one wall each as we were all still learning. It was actually St. Patrick’s Day, so after we had finished work for the day, we decided as a team to celebrate by getting a McDonald’s Shamrock Shake – we do not have these in Australia so I was very excited. In the early evening we attended a dinner which the church was hosting, this was great as we were able to interact with and meet some community members. Several of us decided to go for a jog in the later afternoon – it was beautiful. I really enjoyed being in the fresh air and seeing more of the town.
Once agin we were framing, we became slightly better and each team
managed to complete either two or three frames, we saw this as a significant improvement. I discovered that I am allergic to saw dust as even with a ventilator my throat was still irritated. This was annoying but didn’t put a damper on my day as I knew I just had to endure several more days. After we had finished work for the day we went to the local sports complex which was fantastic. We worked-out individually for around half the time, before coming together and having an epic volleyball game.
Day 5 was the last day of framing and by this point we were serious pros. At the end of the day, we had actually completed the entirety of the exterior walls of a home. We were really proud of this effort as not only had all of our construction skills improved, we were the ones responsible for these frames being completed which a family in need would eventually live in. Once we left the site we returned to the church where we had Brinner (breakfast for dinner – duh); it was incredible. We then went downtown to explore the main street more, purchased specialty popcorn and checked out the local ice-cream parlour where we devoured some tasty treats.
Day 6 marked our last day working for Habitat and it was bittersweet. We spent the morning doing another community service project which consisted of pulling down a handicap ramp, and then spent the rest of the day assisting with cleaning up the warehouse and yard before finally doing a photoshoot as a team and saying our goodbyes to the Habitat team. We spent the afternoon packing our bags and napping before heading out for a Mexican dinner and attending a semi-professional Ice hockey game. The Ice hockey game was like nothing I had ever witnessed before. The fans were all shaking their cow bells when their team had possession, and the hosts were engaging with the audience through shouting and dancing competitions. My seat was apparently lucky as I won a coupon for a local ribs outlet.
We hit the road at 7am, Chicago bound. We arrived in Chicago around noon and driving into the city was sensational as we were able to see the skyline and the Willis (Sears) tower very clearly. My first impression of Chicago was that the city is a smaller version of New York City. We explored Millennium Park and I was in awe the entire time. I was so excited to see the Big Bean and couldn’t wait to see what else the city offered. We passed the Chicago river which was still a hint of green from St. Patrick’s Day, and also walked down the Navy Pier. I was amazed by the pier, and Lake Michigan’s beauty. It was one of the most beautiful shades of blue I had ever seen. We had intentions of walking down the magnificent mile and shopping, however our stomach’s interfered with this plan and instead we went to Pizzeria Uno to eat the original Chicago-style deep-dish. We waited around an hour and a half for this pizza, but in my opinion, it was worth it. The pizza had a fruit pie-like base with fresh toppings. After two slices I was uncomfortably full. By this point it was around 5pm and it was time to go. We once again drove through the night and arrived back at campus at approximately 5:20am. Although it was a long day, this day was one of the best days of my life.
We all agreed that the trip was a very worthwhile experience and I would certainly recommend it to students looking to do something different during their break. Working for Habitat put life into perspective for me, and allowed me to see how fortunate, blessed and lucky I am. I want to give back where I can, and prior to this trip I found it difficult to discover these kinds of organisations which were inline with my visions and values. Habitat provides this opportunity in a safe environment with the chance to learn useful, valuable skills. The kinds of people that you meet on these alternative trips are a special kind, I feel it takes a certain type of person to be willing to sacrifice their break in order to go and do community service. I am sure that the friendships which were formed during this trip will last in years to come.
Thankyou SUNY Oswego for providing me with this opportunity, thankyou to the incredible group I was able to experience this with, and a massive thank-you to Scott Ball for being an incredible leader and role model.