Learning through Alternative Breaks

By: Meghan Foley, American Hiking Society Intern

When I was researching American Hiking Society during my internship application process, I was excited to learn about their alternative break program and its focus on environmental stewardship and trail conservation. This was a welcome coincidence, since I have a large soft spot for the alternative breaks movement and am heavily involved in the program at my school, the College of William & Mary. I’ve been loving my time with American Hiking, and was fortunate to be able to take a week off in June to spend some time with other alternative break participants and leaders in Ferguson, Missouri.

If you’re unfamiliar with alternative breaks, these service-learning programs exist at colleges and universities across the country. These are immersive service trips structured around a particular community, social issue, or cause. Breakers, as they are often called, are committed to exploring the underlying causes of social and environmental problems through pre-trip education and reflecting on our role as individuals.

My alternative break program at W&M is a member of Break Away, a non-profit that provides training and best practices for the alternative breaks movement. Each summer they host Alternative Breaks Citizenship schools (ABCs) for student and staff leaders from across the country. The ABCs are a combination of theory and practice- the training workshops are value, but the real magic comes from seeing the power of service in action.

In Ferguson, we worked with Operation Help or Hush, a fantastic grassroots organization that developed to address community needs during the recent protests. We worked on small projects, from painting recycling bins to put in pedestrian areas, putting together fresh produce for a food share, and working on the gardens that surround the public library. The work the community has done to rebuild has been given so little public attention, but the commitment of the people I met was incredible.

I was lucky enough to be surrounded by really thoughtful people who were generous with their own stories and genuinely curious about the experiences of others. They were willing to challenge each other and humble enough to admit when they were wrong.

I probably left Ferguson with more questions than answers. But, more than ever, I feel hopeful that open conversations about societal challenges can make a difference and am more confident in my ability to initiate those conversations in my own spheres. While the work we completed in Ferguson on this recent alternative break was different than the trail stewardship work completed on an American Hiking Society Alternative Break, both experiences prove that young people coming together to work through a community challenge can have lasting, positive effects on all those involved.

To learn more about American Hiking Society’s Alternative Break program, visit HERE.