Students Find 'Joyful Purpose' on Alternative Spring Break
March 24, 2017
Junior mathematics and religion double major Rosa Zapata is a Multifaith Ambassador,
Writing Center tutor, and Argus staff member. Following is her first-person account
of this year’s Alternative Spring Break trip to assist the Arkansas Valley Habitat
for Humanity in Fort Smith, Arkansas.
As we piled into two white vans and a black SUV for the eight-hour journey to Fort
Smith, I already knew what everyone is thinking. Even though it’s my second year doing
Alternative Spring Break (ASB), I was thinking the same two things everyone else was:
‘crap, I overpacked’ and ‘why did I sign up for this?’ Of course, all 20 of us acknowledged the importance of the work we signed up to do,
but it’s hard to wake up early, drag more pairs of pants and pajamas than we’ll need
for the week across campus, and sit in a car with little legroom for eight hours.
This is especially hard when all of your friends are partying on some beach in Florida.
But, as an ASB veteran, I also knew that by the end of this week, we would all wish
we could have stayed longer.
The first day we were greeted by Rev. Steve who showed us around St. Paul United Methodist
Church, where we would stay for the week. It was a big church, complete with a gym,
showers, an industrial kitchen, art rooms and the Sanctuary, a room decorated with
beautiful stained-glass windows, and, most importantly, the best Wi-Fi signal in the
building. When we were done with the tour, the women moved into their room and the
men into theirs. After assembling the notoriously difficult cots, we shut off the
lights and set our alarms for 6:30 a.m.
The church was a convenient 5-minute drive from the worksite, which, we discovered
the next morning, wasn’t particularly cheery-looking. It was muddy, the sky was on
the cloudier side, and plywood and hammers were scattered everywhere. Stepping out
of the warm cars and into the cold and wind, we met three men who were in charge of
the worksite—Eddie, Hugh and Jim. Eddie is an Arkansas-native, while Jim is from Illinois
and Hugh, with an accent to rival actor Christopher Walken, is from New York. Every
day, these three men would make the effort to get to know us, asking us about our
majors and career plans. They even brought us hot cocoa and doughnuts.
During the week we worked from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., nailing roof panels, laying
down vinyl flooring, caulking gaps in the white trim, and sawing pieces of wood and
trim with extreme precision. Standing on rickety scaffolding, we installed J-Channel,
which is used for trimming around windows and doors or for inside corners. It was
undoubtedly hard work, but I don’t think any of us really realized it. When we were
working on the two houses, one almost finished and the other a mere wooden skeleton,
we were, as one of our leaders, Director of Student Activities Liz Vales put it, not
happy, but joyful. ‘Happy’ was too lukewarm, too transient. ‘Joyful’ was the right
word to describe the laughter, smiles, and conversations we all shared.
After a few days, we met one of the home’s future owners, Ruthie, and her 7-year-old
daughter. Ruthie is 21 years old and had just gotten a position at a local elementary
school. We cooked a stir-fry dinner for her and her daughter, and we all ate together
around plastic, folding tables in the church gym. She was eager to get to know all
of us, and her gratefulness couldn’t have been clearer. That night, as we shared our
reflections of the day, many of us said that meeting Ruthie and her daughter gave
even more meaning to our work. Jill Rajarathnam ’18 said that after meeting Ruthie
and her daughter, she was even more dedicated to making the house as perfect as possible
for the future occupants.
Now, as I said before, I knew that going on this trip would bring us all fulfillment
and joy. But this trip surprised me in a way I never expected. Since last year’s presidential
election, I have grown considerably pessimistic. Our group was very diverse, composed
of international students, African-American students and Hispanic students. Honestly,
I was wary of how people in the South would treat us. But as the days passed, that
wariness disappeared. We were given a hot meal almost every day, thanks to the numerous
groups of volunteers who took time out of their schedules to cook for a group of strangers.
We even had a group of girls called the Dandies perform a spectacular rodeo show just
for us. Every single person we met in Arkansas was overflowing with kindness and generosity.
Our return to Bloomington was bittersweet. We were all sad to leave such a beautiful
and welcoming place, but we were also thankful for having had this experience together.
The grins on our faces showed that. Next year, as I’m standing in line to toss my
luggage into a van, I will probably ask myself why I signed up for ASB again—old habits
die hard. But I won’t forget the feelings of purpose and glee that develop throughout
the week of building homes, connecting with strangers and helping families in need.