No beach; no road trip; no booze.
And it was still one of the best Spring Breaks of my life.
When I was accepted into the Leadership Knoxville Scholars– a new program run through the Center for Leadership and Service – I knew that an alternative spring break was one of the requirements. I actually looked forward to the trip, having already traveled to Washington, D.C., during my sophomore year with an alternative break group. That trip had been transformational, introducing me to a world I hadn't seen and people that remain some of my good friends.
But when I found out this year's trip would be to Knoxville, I was crushed. A service-filled Spring Break isn't exactly glamorous, but a service-filled spring break in Knoxville? I could almost hear the "wah, wah, wahh," when our director gave us the news.
All semester, I looked forward to the break from classes but dreaded the idea of remaining in the town I felt I already knew well enough after nearly three years at UT.
Nevertheless, I packed my bags and walked down Cumberland Avenue at 6 a.m. on the first day of break, arriving at the Vol Condos – where we would stay all together to achieve a team experience – a few minutes later. My fellow Leadership Knoxville Scholars seemed as disgruntled as I felt, and it was with reluctant steps that we loaded into a 12-passenger van and headed to our first site.
What followed was an eight-day reminder of what it means to be a Volunteer.
At the Knoxville Botanical Gardens, the 17 of us shoveled elephant manure, built a garden pathway, planted 53 trees and peeled garlic; we learned how a community garden can provide comfort, food and work to Knoxville's large Burundi refugee population.
At Beardsley Community Farm, we dug trenches, weeded beds, strung up trellises and planted cilantros; an AmeriCorps volunteer named Kate taught us all how urban agriculture is not only possible for everyone – it's kinda fun, too.
At the Vestal Boys and Girls Club, we constructed raised garden walls out of sandbags, bobby pins and chicken wire, finishing the job with countless wheelbarrows of cement; the kids there will have an outdoor learning center come May, a chance to grow their own plants and take steps toward a more active lifestyle.
There were other service sites – a 5K here, a river clean-up there, a Habitat build to finish things up – and there were other moments; a group of acquaintances learned to laugh at inside jokes and work together seamlessly on jobs for which we had no prior experience. A garden cat named Weasel stole our hearts, and a hike up to Max Patch gave us a different perspective of the mountains we call home.
To be true, Instagram became increasingly painful, filled with beach pictures of bikinis, suntans and coolers. It was hard to look at all the fun in all the places far from Knoxville, especially when looking at the ASB trips that went to Jamaica and Chicago. Every one of us had expressed frustration that our trip remained on campus, and I myself felt Knoxville was good enough as it was. Maybe a few sidewalks needed mending.
But then I saw the projects in East and North Knoxville; I saw the pallet houses being designed for the homeless. I realized that the consequence of wealth is poverty; the price of comfort is hardship.
Our collegiate bubble can make us forget that Knoxville has some of the nation's largest food deserts and a disproportionately large vagrant population.
It took a week off school for me to learn how I can help heal those problems.
Maybe next year I'll make it to Destin or take that road trip to California, but for now, I'm pretty happy with my Spring Break. It left my hands callused and cut, but it reminded me that my hands are meant for more than typing keys on a laptop. My jeans are still dirty, but now I have a special pair for the next time I work with the Earth.
And the best part? Now that I've started volunteering in Knoxville, I don't need to stop. I live right here.
R.J. Vogt is a junior in College Scholars. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.