UDM's Alternative Spring Break celebrates 25 years of changing lives

ASB Sacramento groupSacramento, Calif. Spring Breakers (from l to r:) Renee Kettering, RSM, Olivia Mendoza, Danita Dreffs, Sarah McCullough, Libby Fernandez, RSM, Tracy Gallardo, and Lexi Konja. Sr. Libby is the executive director of Loaves and Fishes. She oversaw the breakers’ volunteer work and reflected on the experiences with them each day. The group gathered at Sr. Libby’s home following Mass on Ash Wednesday.

by Liz Cezat, contributing writer

Students at UDM who take part in Alternative Spring Break (ASB) are acquiring a breakthrough education and gaining lifelong lessons by performing hands-on community outreach from rural settings to big cities.

Spring 2014 marks the 25th anniversary of the ASB program, begun by Beth Ann Finster, S.S.J., assistant director of University Ministry. As a University Ministry initiative, Sr. Beth took a group of nine students to a Jesuit mission on an Indian reservation at Pine Ridge, S.D. in 1989. Students sorted clothes for a rummage sale, painted the outside of Our Lady of the Sioux Church at Oglala, S.D., and chinked a building (mudded the logs).

“It was an incredible experience,” said Sr. Beth. “We decided to continue with this outreach, but move it to spring break.” UDM was one of the first Jesuit schools in the country to conduct a formal Alternative Spring Break. University Ministry also makes community outreach trips in the winter and at the end of Term II, averaging eight mission trips a year. Since 1989, about 400 students have participated in these trips.

UDM students typically help at both Jesuit- or Mercy-sponsored organizations that are identified by University Ministry staff and others. These nonprofits range from a food bank in Chicago to an agency in the Appalachian Mountains that repairs homes of low-income individuals. Students have also stayed in Detroit over spring break to work on local projects.

To celebrate this year’s anniversary, 10 students and two colleagues went on a mystery trip from April 27 to May 4 in the U.S. (still a secret at press time.) On May 18, ASB alumni have been invited to work on a service project in the morning and to a cookout at Lansing-Reilly Hall. No doubt, memories will be shared.

The weeklong charitable work performed by students is both life affirming and transformative. It alters their view of humanity and also impacts their interactions with fellow students and faculty.

Lexi Konja, a senior majoring in Biochemistry with a minor in Catholic Studies, has participated in three ASB trips. During her sophomore year, she traveled to Tuscon, Ariz., to work at the Mexican border helping new immigrants. As a junior, she worked with a ministry group in Tuscaloosa, Ala. to rebuild homes that had been ripped apart by tornadoes. In spring 2014, she counseled the homeless and drug addicts at Loaves and Fishes in Sacramento, Calif., a Mercy-based organization.

“When I first started college,” Konja said, “I was a wallflower. I became more outspoken with these experiences. I’ve been able to travel with the ASB group every semester, and I’ve done my own personal ministry. I now speak up for social justice. I want others to understand that we (middle-class Americans) are the one percent; there are others who have it so much worse.”

Of her experience at Loaves and Fishes, she said, “Personally, being there with a positive attitude can help those who are lonely or depressed. I have conversations with them. Individuals walk away knowing that someone cares about them.”

Renee Kettering, RSM, ITS information technology specialist at UDM, was the staff leader on the Sacramento trip. As part of the experience, she said the students reflected upon these questions, “What does this experience mean to me in my life? How does it relate to my own sense of God?” Since the group went at the beginning of Lent, they also pondered, “How does this opportunity of service fit in a Lenten journey?”

Sr. Renee was moved spiritually while observing a student fully absorb the experience of a homeless guest. “The student said, ‘That could be my father. Who is to say there is anything to separate me or someone that I know from being homeless?’”

This deep understanding occurred for Sr. Beth during University Ministry’s first international experience in the 1990s. “Going to Jamaica and helping to build houses for people who lived in tin huts was an incredible experience.

“The houses were only 10 x 10 with one room, a door and a window. But it was the first time that these homeowners had a door with a lock. Even though they didn’t have much to protect, that lock symbolized independence and security.”

Sr. Beth was humbled by an action of one of the homeless “guests” they helped at Loaves and Fishes in Sacramento in spring 2014. When it was time to fly back to Detroit, the man brought the group snacks and drinks. She told him, “Thank you, but we can’t take them.” He said, ‘But you have to.’

“While we think we are doing service for others, the real significance is that UDM students fully realize just how fortunate they are. Students often say, ‘I never realized how much I had’, even though some of them really have very little,” said Sr. Beth. “They become committed to doing service.”  

Other international trips have been to El Salvador and Guatemala. In the United States, University Ministry often sets up repeat visits to nonprofits before changing the venue. They’ve been to New Orleans five times to repair property damage following Hurricane Katrina. The gratitude and need of these nonprofits is simply put, “Please come back.”

Typically seven to 10 students attend each trip, so they can ride in a van. Some trips require air transportation, others are drivable destinations.

Prior to the trip, the group meets several times at University Ministry to get to know each other and discuss expectations and the work to be done. Each day on the trip, a student leads the group in prayer and reflection.

The insight and inspiration gained from these trips deeply impact UDM students. It has motivated Konja to spend one year with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC) prior to attending medical school.

The cost of the trip averages $650 per student. Students are responsible for $250 and for raising $150 through group events such as bake sales and concession sales at Titan games. The balance is covered through gifts. The Canjar-Weisfeld Union Memorial Fund was set up in memory of Mike Canjar, a former UDM math professor. The fund provides partial scholarships for students who can’t afford even the base rate so that no one is turned away from participating in ASB.

To contribute to this fund for future ASB trips, please contact University Advancement at 313-993-1250.

For more information about UDM, or to apply online, go to www.udmercy.edu/apply.

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