It's been 20 years since UT students first united to serve the community of Miami, instead of taking a Spring Break vacation.

Twenty years later, the Volunteer tradition of alternative Spring Break trips continues, as the Center for Leadership & Service (CLS) sent 58 students, faculty and staff to service sites in Washington, D.C.; Tallahassee, Florida; and back to the program's origin in Miami.

Each trip had a specific theme: Miami's group examined environmental issues and mankind's impact on ecosystems. Sarah Gregory, a senior in American studies and the Miami trip leader, said she and fellow trip leader Molly Sullivan chose Miami for its unique blend of urban and rural.

"We felt that Miami is such a unique area in that it has such a strong urban environment, but it's surrounded by really unique and diverse national parks," Gregory said. "We wanted to focus on environmental issues and the relationship between the urban environment and the national parks ... how humans impact those areas."

After four days in Miami, the environmental Spring Break trip returned to Knoxville and served in the Knoxville botanical gardens and Frozen Head State Park.

"We wanted to show that the type of service you do in other communities can always be connected back to your home community," Gregory said.

She added that her group is already planning on continuing their week of service. In a couple of weeks, Gregory said the students will return to the botanical gardens and were considering heading back up to Frozen Head in the summer.

Another group of students went to Tallahassee to examine underrepresented populations of the homeless. They served by working in homeless shelters, women's facilities and homes for the elderly.

The third trip worked with the impoverished of the nation's capital. Led by Margaret Smith, a junior in Spanish and biology, and Eric Goins, a senior in psychology, the students performed a wide range of service. Highlights included serving hot breakfast to the homeless, cooking and packaging meals for those with debilitating illness, providing struggling populations with furniture, and clothing and cleaning up community parks in rough neighborhoods.
Alexandra Pitzer, a junior in child and family studies, said she indicated a preference for the D.C. trip because she wanted to expand her service horizons.

"In Knoxville, I deal with a very specific type of service," Pitzer said. "I thought it would be really interesting to see ... homelessness and poverty in our nation's capital where I know there are so many opulent buildings and so much wealth.

“There are so many people that have the power to fix it immediately, but it’s not fixed.”

Pitzer, who normally volunteers at an elementary after school program called S.O.A.R., said the trip helped her realize the importance of treating everyone with dignity.

“The biggest thing that I took away is just, not to be afraid to show homeless people … genuine human contact,” she said. “Ignoring them is the worst thing you can do. Even if you don’t give them money, just sitting down and talking to them, or you know, smiling and saying, ‘Good morning,’ will do a world of good.”

On the D.C. trip, students discussed the value in service’s “ripple effect,” which Pitzer said can be seen when one person’s service inspires other people to do the same.

Gregory said the trip leaders began working on the plans a year ago, acknowledging the dedication required by the trip leader position.

“It’s taken up the majority of my school year, it’s one of the most intense things I’ve had to plan here at UT because you have to think of all the details,” she said. “With this position, you set the expectations. You have to plan all the details. It’s probably one of the hardest things I’ve done, quite honestly.”

Despite the early mornings and hard work, both Pitzer and Gregory said the trip was worth it.

“That’s the thing, like break trips are supposed to explore serious issues and all that stuff … but really, alternative Spring Break trips are some of the most fun I’ve ever had,” Gregory said.

She said that the newly created CLS may continue expanding the reach of the programs. Miami was the first place UT had ever flown to on an alternative break trip.

“I think there’s a lot of planning that goes into doing a flight, but I think the first step is just doing it, trying it out and seeing how it works,” she said. “I don’t know if we will be international by next year, but I think that by taking that first step and just trying an alternative break trip with a flight, we’re at least doing some of the first steps to get there.”

More information about break trips can be found at leadershipandservice.utk.edu.