Lauren Wong helps Luiseno tribe member Grace Galvin plant a garden on the reservation
Alternative Break volunteer Lauren Wong (right), a second-year public health major at UCI, helps Luiseno tribe member Grace Galvin plant a garden on the reservation. Michelle S. Kim / UCI

During last month’s spring break, as most college students recovered from finals by lounging in the sun, 14 UC Irvine undergraduates toiled under it at the La Jolla Indian Reservation, in northern San Diego County. They helped the Luiseno tribe plant a community garden, haul trash and pick California white sage for an upcoming Earth Day celebration.

“The students could go anywhere — to Florida, to Mexico, to Vegas. They could go home or go party on the beach,” says John Flores, the tribe’s environmental program manager, who oversees the student projects during their stay. “But they come here. It’s so selfless of them to volunteer their time.”

A total of about 50 UCI students sacrificed what precious little R&R they get during the academic year to participate in the campus Center for Service in Action’s Alternative Break program. From March 20 to 26, they helped nonprofit organizations at five sites statewide.

“It’s a unique way for UCI students to engage in a community service project,” says Tiffani Razo, a fourth-year international studies major who led the La Jolla reservation project. “A lot of them say they want to get involved but don’t have time during the school year.”

Two other groups of UCI volunteers went to San Francisco to help a healthcare agency serving the needy and to spruce up Golden Gate National Recreation Area by removing invasive plants and maintaining trails. Another contingent served meals to the homeless at Dorothy’s Place, a shelter in Salinas.

“Alternative Break is an opportunity for students to step outside their comfort zone and really immerse themselves in a different environment and community. There’s only so much you can learn from textbooks,” says Thao Le, a fourth-year anthropology major who organized the Salinas project and has spent past breaks volunteering at Habitat for Humanity in Questa, N.M., and the La Jolla reservation.

“This trip has been an eye-opening experience. People come to Dorothy’s Place because they feel at home and want someone to listen to their stories. Everyone has his or her own struggles, and we challenged ourselves to seek understanding, not judgment. Our group learned that the common factor of homelessness is a broken heart.”

Both the students and those they help gain from the experience, participants say.

The volunteers have provided much-needed labor at the La Jolla Indian Reservation since a devastating fire swept through it in October 2007. They’ve planted hundreds of trees around homes and the campground to restore the land.

“The community loves having them here,” Flores says. “They don’t fit the stereotype of rowdy college kids. We admire what they’re doing.”

The students gain exposure to life beyond campus and their hometowns.

“Most have never been to a tribal reservation or met a Native American,” Flores says. “There’s a misconception that Native Americans are all about casinos and gaming. This is a chance for them to see a nongaming tribe in a rural area.”

They also get to enjoy the natural surroundings, he notes: “Many haven’t spent much time outside suburbia. We’re in the foothills, at the base of Palomar Mountain in Pauma Valley. The kids are shocked at how beautiful it is. They say they’ve never seen so many stars.”

During the week, students stay on the reservation, sleeping on cots in a classroom. They enjoy a farewell dinner hosted by the tribe that includes traditional Indian food, storytelling and singing. They also tutor and play games with K-8 children in the reservation’s after-school program.

“The Luisenos share their culture with us,” Razo says. “We have better insight into the Native American community and how they value their resources.”

The students will return to the reservation April 30 to join in the tribe’s Earth Day celebration.

“We really formed a bond with the community members — and with each other,” Razo says. “What’s great about Alternative Break is that you get to share the experience with your fellow students, who come from all backgrounds.”

Founded in spring 2003, Alternative Break was started at UCI by a small group who spent the week off school volunteering at Orange County nonprofit organizations. Since then, the program has grown to include five projects in spring and two in winter, with groups of about 14 students working at sites throughout California and out of state.

“Students gain so much from Alternative Break. They learn about themselves, their values and social issues. They return to campus more motivated to get involved and continue their public service,” says Darlene Esparza, director of the Center for Service in Action.

“One of the most rewarding projects took place in Biloxi, Miss., in 2006, when they assisted with Hurricane Katrina relief efforts. That program had such a positive impact on them. Although the volunteers witnessed destruction and tragedy, they were most affected by the community’s warmth and resiliency.”

Project leaders invest time during the school year planning the Alternative Breaks. They research locations, interview students who apply to volunteer, hold seminars, and coordinate guest speakers and events during the trips. In addition, they participate in quarterly service projects in Orange County, such as helping out at local soup kitchens.

Jess Hinton, a fourth-year biological sciences major, organized last month’s trip to San Francisco-based Home CARES, which collects used medical equipment and distributes it to the needy.

“My goal was for students to learn about the challenges poor people in the U.S. face in receiving healthcare. I wanted this to be an educational experience,” says Hinton, whose group also volunteered at St. Vincent de Paul’s in Oakland.

“When I compared doing this for a week versus staying home, going on the trip was the better choice,” she says. “I gained perspective and humility. Alternative Break is something I’ll never forget.”

Originally published in ZotZine Vol. 3, Iss. 7