Green Thumbs & Giving Back
The last two years that I was in college I participated in what my school called an “Alternative Spring Break”. I stumbled across a poster for the break and decided to do more research and apply. Students could spend their week of vacation paying it forward in four or five various fields—like inner-city education, HIV/AIDS awareness and Habitat for Humanity. The one that seemed most interesting to me was called “Creating Sustainable Food Resources in Urban Communities with PHS in Philadelphia”.
I was drawn to this particular spring break the most because it melded things that I already had an interest in, like food, gardening and environmental sustainability. I applied early in my junior year. By the time spring came around, my friends were packing bags to head to the beach and I was packing my overalls and garden gloves to head to the city.
The experience was new and scary for me. I consider myself a fairly introverted person, so the thought of going on a mini “vacation” with nine strangers was a little terrifying. But the van ride down to the city was all we needed to bond, share stories and laugh at bad jokes.
I had the best time that week. I made 10 new friends, learned a ton about making a difference in a community and felt like I had spent my free time doing something that truly helped others.
We worked with a bunch of organizations that week besides PHS. We spent days at beautiful places planting seedlings for local community gardens. One of the locations was Awbury Arboretum, an expansive public grounds located in Germantown, just outside of Philadelphia.
I remember feeling the dirt get stuck under my fingernails as we were planting seedlings (things like lettuces and exotic peppers) and feeling thrilled.
The notion that we were starting something that would help people not only now but also in the future was exhilarating. Our seedlings would be transported to local community gardens from places like Awbury and then those gardens would grow them and distribute to families, food banks and soup kitchens.
It was almost like a domino-effect of continuous helping. I could see how the actions I was taking that week would have an effect on the community I was helping long after I left.
Needless to say I was so happy with my first alternative spring break that I quickly signed up to do it again my senior year. I was the only person from the previous year to return, but that didn’t deter me. I didn’t serve as a trip leader, but I was a useful resource for my comrades who had questions about what we were doing and what to expect. It felt rewarding to be a positive influence for those around me, because I knew that together we could all have an impact even though we would only be in Philly for a short week.
I made a lot of memories during my spring breaks. I still am friends with a handful of my peers from both of the trips I went on and talk to them on Facebook. Perhaps more importantly, I learned that volunteering shouldn’t be a “one time thing”.
Once you find a cause that you think is worth fighting for, make connections with advocacy groups, get in touch with local volunteers in your area and make an effort to keep up with them a few times a year.
Since I recently graduated from college and started working full-time, I know there’s always going to be the excuse that I am too busy to make time for volunteering. But I will not slip into that mindset! I ended up moving to Philadelphia—only a short walking distance from where my alternative break group stayed during my second year.
Now that I have the groundwork of what organizations are close to me, I can work around my schedule to fit in time to pay it forward—whether it’s cleaning out garden beds after work hours, planting seedlings on the weekends or even helping out at a soup kitchen on holidays.
If you’re looking to volunteer but don’t know where to start, I have some options! If you’re a college student like I was, search your school’s website to see if they offer alternative spring breaks. Many of them are paid for through fundraising, so you might not have to worry about the finances. My school even offered a scholarship!
Another fantastic resource is VolunteerMatch. On this website you can choose from tons of causes which appeal to you the most, type in your zip code and be connected to organizations in your area.
Paying it forward doesn’t have to be boring, or scary for that matter. Take the first step and put yourself out there. You can volunteer for causes that matter to you and make a handful of friends and memories in the process.