Breaks That Make a Difference
 
 
A UO student painting a stove in Guatemala

Breaks That Make a Difference

Breaks That Make a Difference

Breaks That Make a Difference

 

The alarm went off at 6:00 a.m. Braedon Kwiecien, a journalism student at the University of Oregon, brushed his teeth, put on his work pants—still ripe with sweat from mixing cement the day before—and headed up to the rooftop patio of a hotel in the heart of Antigua, Guatemala. As he sipped his coffee, Braedon watched the sun rise over Iglesia de la Merced to the east.

To the west, Volcán de Fuego spouted ash. It was a visual reminder that the booming clap that echoed through Alotenango, a village outside of Antigua, while he was delivering the clean-burning stoves he built to families the previous day was not thunder, but an erupting volcano. Rested, caffeinated, and ready for the day, Braedon headed down to meet his team for another day of work building stoves and learning about the people who would be receiving them.

That is how Braedon spent his spring break in 2017. While most college students used the week to relax, sleep in, or go on vacation, Braedon and 60 other UO students opted for an alternative—completing service projects around the country and around the world on five Alternative Spring Breaks, a program run by the Holden Center for Leadership and Community Engagement.

Students with Braedon on the Guatemala trip teamed up with Stove Team International to build clean burning, energy efficient cook stoves that emit less smoke and require less fuel. Then, they delivered those stoves to the local community, because one of the most dangerous activities a woman can undertake in the developing world is cooking for her family. 

“We spoke with many of the [stove] factory workers throughout the day, sharing personal stories and connecting with one another. Not only was this a great way to get to know each other's cultures, but it was inspiring to see how quickly individuals from vastly different lives and cultures could grow to appreciate and enjoy the other's company,” Braedon said.

Two students talking with a stove factory worker

In addition to the trip to Guatemala to build stoves, in 2017 UO students on Alternative Spring Breaks worked with a health clinic in Nicaragua, where they collected household data on diabetes, obesity, and diet with nonprofit partner Communidad Connect.

“I grew personally and came away with a better understanding of community building,” said Abe Vega, a family human services major from Woodburn, Oregon, who went on the Alternative Break to Nicaragua.

In Hawaii, students removed invasive mangroves from the coastline and planted native species in fish ponds while engaging in critical discussions about sustainable development that blends Western resource management perspectives with traditional Polynesian land management practices.

In San Francisco, the crew explored the transformative power of play with community partner Playworks. Playworks’s vision is that one day every child in America will get to play every day. Working with Playworks-trained Americorps volunteers, participants created a place for every kid on the playground and learned about the importance of play to early childhood emotional and social development.

And, closer to campus, students partnered with Northwest Youth Corps to create a local service and leadership experience on the Rogue River. They developed hard skills working on conservation projects to improve recreational infrastructure while developing the soft skills required to successfully lead groups in the outdoors.

“We do a lot of intellectual labor in school, so this was a chance to do something physical and truly make the woods more accessible for hikers,” said Elizabeth Bezark, an international studies major from Sacramento, California, who went on the Alternative Break on the Rogue River.

While the physical work was a focus, it really wasn’t the point of the trips. Students learned to think critically about their roles and responsibilities while making contributions that promote the health and well-being of their communities.

The experience goes beyond the seven days, and translates into a life-long commitment to meaningful and critical civic engagement.

“Alternative Spring Breaks are not a trip to Hawaii or Guatemala. Alternative Spring Breaks are a chance to learn about a completely new culture and yourself. It's not about where you go, but how open you are to new ideas and new experiences,” said Sarah Wheeler, a biology major from Beaverton, Oregon, who went on the Alternative Break to Hawaii.

Braedon Kwiecien

Braedon Kwiecien's Journal

Back on campus, waking up Monday mornings comes with a lethargic sigh, a haphazard choice of clothes and a slow saunter to class.

But in Antigua, the former de facto capitol of Central America, the warm Monday morning air greeted me and my 15 companions with welcome.

What I appreciated about our cross-border adventure was how close I became with my neighbors from Eugene. I bunked with a 20-year-old named Boran Israel-Megerssa and I can honestly say that waking up next to this goof ball was the perfect start to my morning. My new best friend took a shower while I lounged in bed for another 10 minutes, listening to birds chirp from the other side of our bedroom door.

When it was my turn to wash myself with the soaps made of berries and natural ingredients in the shower, I stared out the window of the bathroom, watching the sun rise through the morning haze and over the distant mountains.

Realizing I had coffee and friends to enjoy on the roof of our hotel, I tore myself from the window's vista, threw on work pants, a t-shirt and some old running shoes and ascended the stairs to the roof.

I greeted my friends and took in the panorama of colonial buildings and geological sublimity.

Surrounding Antigua are three volcanoes named Agua, Fuego and Aquatenango, one of which plumed smoke Monday morning (are you kidding! I got to see an active volcano before 7 a.m.!)

We shared groggy morning-hellos on the roof-top garden, yet everyone seemed slightly more enthused than I imagined they might have been the Monday prior.

When everyone was ready to go, we walked down the cobblestone street to Fernando's Cafe, a local coffee, pastry and breakfast shop that also happened to supply the natural soap that we all washed with back at the hotel.

I sat in the open-air courtyard with my new friends, sipping an Americano and learning about everyone's highlights from the day before.

With the option of fruit salad, crepes or a typical Guatemalan breakfast, I opted for the "típico."

When my plate of black beans, fried plantains, over-easy eggs and tortillas arrived, I could not have felt more blessed. Surrounded by good food, good drink, good weather and great people, this service trip was looking a lot more like a service to me.

We dined and dashed, after paying of course, and jumped into one of two vans driven by men who knew the streets of Antigua like the back of their hands.

A young man barely older than myself named Emilio showed us the sites and escorted us through the centuries-old town. Our destination: Ecocomal stove factory.

Read Braedon's Full Journal Entry

 


Here’s where Ducks went this year:


CRITICAL COMMUNITY HEALTH ENGAGEMENT IN NICARAGUA

In Nicaraguan coffee country, participants worked in conjunction with the community health center to collect household data on diabetes, obesity, and diet. The group assisted in public health projects in the community by helping install concrete floors, painting homes with insect repellent paint, and educating families on point of use water filters.

Nui Gonzales
Major: Human Physiology  |  Hometown: Honolulu, Hawaii
Nui Gonzales
“The alternative break trip to Nicaragua was an incredible experience, not only to learn about a culture different from my own, but to learn more about myself and how I respond to new environments. It was an opportunity for me to put my class work down for once and to learn in a way that makes the information I've received unforgettable. This trip furthered my love for public health and medicine, and thanks to the members within Communidad Connect, this trip also inspired me to become a bigger help to my community here.”

 

 

A UO student helps a child with her work

A group of UO students went to Nicaragua for Alternative Spring Break

UO student give a high five to a small child



DECOLONIZING ECOSYSTEMS IN HAWAII

Participants worked on a watershed-focused ecological restoration project at a native plant nursery in Kaneohe called Hui Ku Maoli Ola, removing invasive mangroves from the coastline and planting native species in fish ponds. The group moved from the mountaintop to the oceanside throughout the week, exploring traditional land management perspectives, while engaging in discussions about sustainable development that blends western indigenous resource management practices from Polynesian resource managers.

Sarah Wheeler
Major: Biology  |  Hometown: Beaverton, Oregon
Sarah Wheeler
“I had to push myself out of my comfort zone daily, which let me experience the true nature of these breaks. I learned not only about Hawaiian culture over the course of the week, but I learned a lot about myself. Each service project we did was rooted in understanding the culture in which we were in and how we were impacting the environment around us.”

 

Ben Orndoff
Major: Finance  | Hometown: Medford, Oregon
“Working in collaboration with peers and community partners, we performed various restoration services in different parts of Oahu. The trip was also educationally enriching, as we learned about Polynesian culture and indigenous resource management practices.”
Ben Orndoff
“Working in collaboration with peers and community partners, we performed various restoration services in different parts of Oahu. The trip was also educationally enriching, as we learned about Polynesian culture and indigenous resource management practices.”

 

 



STORYTELLING FOR SOCIAL CHANGE IN GUATEMALA

Participants on this community engagement expedition teamed up with Stove Teams International in Guatemala to build clean burning, energy efficient cook stoves and deliver them to the local community. The group interviewed and photographed the families receiving the stoves and the people working in the stove factory to document and create a narrative for the impact of the experience.

Yomaira Tarula
Major: Human Physiology  |  Hometown: Molalla, Oregon
Yomaira Tarula
As I reflect on my memorable Alternative Spring Break experience in Guatemala, I can sincerely say that it is an experience that will forever have a special and respected spot in my heart. This experience allowed me to connect with others in a deeper sense, despite the complexities that exist within our own life stories and settings, and that alone allowed me to learn more about myself. To me that is a valuable life experience/lesson that will allow me to continue to grow as a person. There is always room for learning, growth, and making a difference in this world and when you are a Duck and have the opportunity to do so, don’t be hesitant to do so because going places can take you very far.”

 

 

UO student painting stoves during Alt Break in Guatemala

The group that went to Guatemala

UO students sanding stoves during Alt Break in Guatemala



THE POWER OF PLAY: EMOTIONAL AND SOCIAL DEVELOPMENT IN SAN FRANCISCO

Participants explored the transformative power of play with our community partner Playworks, whose vision is that one day every child in America will get to play - every day. Working with Playworks-trained Americorps volunteers, the group created a place for every kid on the playground, a place where every kid belongs, has fun and is part of the game. Participants provided children with the opportunity to explore their imaginations, to connect with other kids, and to stretch and grow physically, emotionally, and socially.

Tyler Green
Graduate Program: Community and Regional Planning  |  Hometown: Portland, Oregon
Tyler
Being able to get back out on a playground and engage with students meant the world to me, and I was able to learn so much from all aspects of the break.”

 

 

Michelle T. Lo
Major: Mathematics  | Hometown: Portland, Oregon
“At first, I was worried about how our time there was so short and whether we would be making any actual impact on the community. However, as the week went by, I started to realize that I was making a positive impact, no matter how small, on the students, whether it be a single high five, playing kickball with them, or jamming out with them during recess.”
Michelle Lo
“At first, I was worried about how our time there was so short and whether we would be making any actual impact on the community. However, as the week went by, I started to realize that I was making a positive impact, no matter how small, on the students, whether it be a single high five, playing kickball with them, or jamming out with them during recess.”

 



W.I.L.D.: CONSERVATION LEADERSHIP EXPERIENCE ON THE ROGUE RIVER

The W.I.L.D. (Wilderness Institute for Leadership Development) program partnered with NW Youth Corps to create a local service and leadership-intensive experience in the woods. The project combined education and on-site vocational training to prioritize leadership growth and the development of conservation work skills. Participants developed the hard skills working on conservation projects that improved the recreational infrastructure, while also developing the soft skills required to successfully lead groups in the outdoors.

Lucas Hamilton
Major: Pre-Journalism, Environmental Studies  |  Hometown: Kalamazoo, Michigan
Lucas Hamilton
“Getting away from civilization and doing service work with other people was incredible, and I formed outstanding friendships with my fellow participants which I know will last for a long time.”

 

Elizabeth Bezark
Major: International Studies  | Hometown: Sacramento, California
“I never thought I would be able to hike 6.8 miles with a 40-pound pack on my back, but I did, and I feel really accomplished. From now on, when my mind tells me “I don’t think you can do this,” I’m going to do it simply because I can. I have a lot more belief in myself because of the Alternative Break, and I feel like I can carry that forward.”
Elizabeth Bezark
“I never thought I would be able to hike 6.8 miles with a 40-pound pack on my back, but I did, and I feel really accomplished. From now on, when my mind tells me “I don’t think you can do this,” I’m going to do it simply because I can. I have a lot more belief in myself because of the Alternative Break, and I feel like I can carry that forward.”

 

 

 
Student on Alt Spring Break wearing a see impact note