Topic: Student Affairs

March 17, 2016

At the back of a large warehouse-type facility — next to mismatched but clean stacks of plates and bowls, just around the corner from a full-length mink coat with a lavishly, and one presumes lovingly, embroidered “Ilene D” on the inside lining — a group of Ball State students are devising a plan.

“Do you want to take that stuff out to the floor, and we’ll tag?” one asks, while two others collect armloads full of purses and children’s shoes, then duck around a navy curtain that divides the thrift store’s work and storage area from the public shopping space.

Tagging, sorting, organizing and cleaning — for a full week, the group of eight set up camp at Community Threads in Arlington Heights, Illinois, a resale shop that funds four service agencies in the Chicagoland area. The Ball State team’s charge: turn over the floor stock from fall and winter to spring and summer, quickly and efficiently, to position the store for as much seasonal sales traffic as possible. Timeline for completion: spring break.

Alternative Spring Break iamge

Ashley Holthaus, foreground, DeLisa Plummer and the rest of the team from Ball State work in an assembly line as they tag and hang the spring and summer clothes needed for the sales floor of Community Threads in Arlington, Illinois.

Dubbed alternative spring breaks, the trips have been offered by the university in its current form for just over a decade. But Laura Montoye, assistant director of student life, said more choices are being added in the fall and spring as a result of students seeking more trip options more often.

“We’re looking to keep growing the program, especially as students say they don’t want to just go to school but instead want to get to the roots of things and get involved,” Montoye said. “They want experiences that take them out of their comfort zone.” What’s more, she said, service and community-building experiences are of especial interest and importance to today’s college students.

“They’re going out, seeing their place in the world, directly applying what they are learning in the classroom. They want to feel like they are a part of doing something, building something, in their local and greater communities. There’s a sense of purpose. These trips help them live that.”

Projects span the U.S.

The team in Illinois was one of three school groups that chose work and play for spring break.

While the thrift store team was busy, a group organized through the “Big 4” — the Asian American Student Association, Black Student Association, Latino Student Union and Spectrum — ventured to Florida to help with an ongoing Global Soap Project effort, designed to bring personal hygiene supplies to those in need. And a living-learning community team went to Maryland to partner with the United Way in Baltimore.

The trips were all organized and chosen based on the interests of the students, Montoye said.

“The founder of Global Soap came to Ball State during Welcome Week, and several of us were sitting together listening to his story and how his foundation started,” said Sang Nguyen, a senior from Fishers, Indiana.

The students started talking, and pretty soon there was enough momentum that planning for an unconventional break moved from a group of friends talking about a “cool idea” to a concerted effort on the part of the “Big 4” and the Alternative Break Association.

“Spring break really flew by,” Nguyen said. “By the end of the week, we had assembled 20,000 hygiene kits ... and we can bring this service learning experience back to better our campus and our community. It was very rewarding.”

‘I wanted to do more than … sit on my couch’

Bringing ideas home weighed on Katy Nicholas’ mind as she was finishing her break in Baltimore.

“I was able to see what the people of Baltimore were doing for others in their community, and it made me look at how I could take those things back to Muncie and my home community.”

Katy Nicholas
student volunteer

Nicholas was part of the living-learning team that partnered with United Way, doing behind-the-scenes work at Baltimore-area homeless shelters, city parks and other nonprofit groups.

“It’s my senior year, and I wanted to do more than just go home and sit on my couch,” she said. “Working to end poverty is one of my passions, so when the (break) option in Baltimore came up, I knew it was something I wanted to do.

“It was amazing. I really had such an amazing experience. I was able to see what the people of Baltimore were doing for others in their community, and it made me look at how I could take those things back to Muncie and my home community (Granger, Indiana).”

Nicholas said it confirmed for her that she’d made the right choice for her break, and that service is something she hopes to include in her life after graduation.

“We were able to explore an unfamiliar area while helping people and making really great friends,” she said. “It just proved that I want to continue serving in my community and helping people any way I can.”

Students prevent charity from losing thousands of dollars

While the Florida and Maryland teams had common threads that brought them to the trips, the Illinois group was an open call — some team members met each other on the ride north.

“But bonds develop really quickly,” said Ashley Holthaus, a graduate student from Fort Loramie, Ohio. “You’re working side-by-side, laughing and joking around. And then at night, we have reflections that give us a chance to look back at our day and talk about what we did. There’s a level of trust that develops, and friendships grow fast.”

Alternative Spring Break image

From left: Ramey Cornett, MeMe Jones, Jordan Cordell and Ashleigh Schneider fill a rack with spring clothes.

Indianapolis native DeLisa Plummer considered past trips but for various reasons could never make it work. When Chicago came up, she knew that was her time.

“My sister did one, and she really wanted me to do one,” Plummer said. “I liked the idea of giving my time but also getting to see new places while you’re helping out.

“And it’s not like we’re not having fun. We’re working, but we are having fun, too.”

The work is legitimate and extremely helpful, said Kody Alexander, associate director at Community Threads.

The organization often faces downtime when it needs to clear out inventory from the previous season and stock for the new one. Having volunteers speeds up the process, helping the operation keep its sales numbers up.

“We estimate we lose about $10,000 in sales if the turnover drags out over the course of weeks versus over days. If that money isn’t coming in, then that’s money that’s not going out to the community.”

The organization started just over three years ago and annually funds nearly $150,000 in grants to groups that work with homeless families, provide shelter for victims of abuse and help with education for kids at risk.

“There’s a real sense of the community really supporting this shop and what it funds,” said Holthaus. “There are volunteers who come here every week, and when you’re working with them, you can’t help but be inspired.”

Alexander said the regular volunteers had the same impression after working with the Ball State students.

“This is the first time we’ve had the opportunity to work with them, and we were just blown away,” he said. “They came in so positive and full of energy and life. They brought just a great atmosphere and sense of purpose with them. We hope they come back.”

Program looking at big growth

Montoye said the more that students who travel share their experiences, the more the program will continue to grow.

“Not everyone is going to walk away from an alternative spring break with the exact same experience, but they are all leaving feeling connected. It gives students the perspective and understanding of, ‘We humans are all tied to one another around the world.’”

And that real-world experience gives students a leg up, Montoye said, not just in the business world but in life.

“As these students become professionals and leaders in their field, they’ll have comprehension of that interconnectivity between themselves and their employers to people across the globe. They will know how things work because they will have lived it, and they will be looking for ways to make a difference.”

Alternative Spring Break imageGet involved with Student Voluntary Services

An alternative spring break is just one of several opportunities Ball State students have to help others. Find ways to serve the Muncie community, participate in AmeriCorps activities, and more.

See activities Student Voluntary Services (SVS) offers.