A different kind of Spring Break

Alternative Spring Break is an opportunity for students to volunteer, learn and interact with the local Montreal community.

Contrary to the popular stereotype of university students, Samantha Pappas did not spend March break in Ft. Lauderdale doing backflips into a pool. The 22-year-old English literature major, in fact, spent that March week volunteering at The Open Door/La Porte Ouverte, a day shelter for homeless people on Ave. du Parc.

Pappas was inspired by a McGill CaPS (Career Planning Service) workshop at which she met someone who mentioned the ASB – Alternative Spring Break, which organizes such volunteering gigs.

ASB was conceived by McGill’s Social Equity and Diversity Education (SEDE) Office in 2013 as a reminder that there are many different ways for students to enjoy spring break.

ASB is an opportunity to open the eyes of university students to the harsher realities of the non-academic world, especially for socially conscious people like Pappas.

Long-term commitment

For Pappas, the experience may have been a life-defining moment.

After graduating – this is her fourth and final year ­– Pappas said “I would like to work in some sort of community engagement outreach capacity for the LGBT community.”

“I identify as LGBT, so I feel a personal connection to homeless youths” who may be homeless as a result of being shunned by family or society in general because of their orientation.

The drop-in shelter provides food and clothing to adults, as well as services like washing clothes and showers.

Pappas worked mostly as a receptionist, scheduling showers, which can be taken at 30-minute intervals, and giving tickets for meals, which are served at noon and 1 pm.

“I believe in equal access to resources, namely food and shelter, and the ASB is an opportunity for people (at McGill) to find something like that,” said Pappas.

In fact, her involvement with Open Door did not end with the March break.

“I’m still involved with them. I mop the floors and clean tables and mats, stuff like that.”

Working with Indigenous youth

Cole Malerba, who is studying History and Hispanic studies, volunteered with Native Montréal, a non-profit group that promotes Indigenous culture and provides health, education and economic development services to the Indigenous population of greater Montreal.

Malerba took a contemporary Indigenous culture course last semester, but volunteered for Native Montréal mainly because “I like being around children.”

“It was a day camp, four hours a day from Monday to Thursday, and the kids were divided into two groups of about 15 to 20 kids each;­ 5- to 8-year-olds and 9- to 12-year-olds.

“We went on field trips, to the Montreal Science Centre or to the Montreal Botanical Garden,” said Malerba.

“At the Science Centre, the kids did archery and fishing,” connecting the city-raised children to activities practiced by their ancestors.

“Another time, we were going to go snowshoeing at the Botanical garden but we ended up doing story-telling instead. One day, the kids saw a hoop dance (a cultural heritage dance for many Indigenous tribes.) They loved it.”

A friend of his who considered volunteering last year told him about the SEDE program. So, when he saw posters around campus this year, he felt it was right for him – the day camp would be instructive and fun, while also leaving his evenings free.

Or he could simply have goofed off, no?

“Nah. I like doing stuff.”

World beyond the Roddick Gates

Mayela Lozano, a counselling psychology Master’s student and project assistant who managed the Alternative Spring Break, said that program director Anurag Dhir contacted various community programs to ask if they were interested in participating, and retained 10 of them, some of which had already taken part in the event.

A reflection day was held the day after the four-day program, essentially a debriefing with students to discuss the societal implications of their experience.

“It was definitely an exercise to sensitize students about what’s going on outside the campus,” said Lozano. “Most of them are only in the McGill bubble, they don’t really go outside in the world.”

Of the 66 students who took part in ASB, 65 said in a post-program survey that they were happy with the experience and would enroll again.

“Most of the applicants said they wanted to give back to the community,” said Lozano. “And for some, international students with experience back home, it was a way of learning about this country.”