Spring break with a stay-cation twist: Students volunteer in their home adopted neighborhood

Team members celebrate the completion of their task, building a house in the Clark neighborhood.

While many students spent their spring breaks in more traditional ways and in warmer climates,  26 Clark University undergraduates stayed on campus from March 7 to 11, setting out each day to volunteer with area agencies during the University’s first belief-inspired Interfaith Alternative Spring Break.

Students worked with eight local non-profit organizations and contributed to community outreach programs in Clark’s urban Main South neighborhood and beyond. From sorting food to cleaning parks to painting rooms and building houses, students enthusiastically pitched in.

“Although the majority of us had never done any of those tasks before, we were up for the challenge and were eager to get straight to work,” wrote junior Sarah Gross in a blog post narrating her experience carving and painting trail signs at the Cascade Park, a few miles from Clark.

“What our group lacked in talent we made up for in enthusiasm. Between cheering each other on and laughing at each other’s jokes, the day flew by and neither the wind nor the mud dampened our spirits,” wrote Joseph Strzempko, of Westfield, a 21-year-old Clark junior who is studying political science and was involved in building houses at Worcester and Sturbridge.

The program, initiated by students from Clark University Hillel, the group that celebrates Jewish culture and community, included a diverse group of students who identify as Catholic, Jewish, Protestant, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Baha’i, Unitarian, atheist, agnostic, and free thinkers. The group comprised local, national and international students, including three students from Worcester Polytechnic Institute and an Assumption College undergraduate.

"Clarkie spirit of giving back to the community and helping others is the mentality which very much encouraged me to come to Clark three years ago."

~ Mitchell Harris '12


Clark first-year Gaia Khairana from Indonesia, an active participant of the organizing committee, volunteered in part to learn more about the United States. “As an international student, I have the general impression that the U.S. is a prosperous country, but through this alternative spring break  and other experiences I now realize it is not immune to basic problems—the need for food, better care, living spaces and jobs. The problems people in the city face are basically the same,” she said.

They sorted and organized food in storage boxes at Jeremiah’s Inn and Worcester County Food Bank; spruced up an inner-city playground, Castle Park, with the Main South Community Development Corporation; built shelters and installed weather proofing at two different Habitat for Humanity sites in the neighborhood; painted rooms at Jeremiah’s Inn and Habitat for Humanity; engaged in social activities (mostly playing games) with the residents of the Donna Kay Rest Home; cleaned up and logged in the inventory at Worcester Earn a Bike Organization; and carved and painted trail signs to conserve a piece of land for the Greater Worcester Land Trust.

“Clarkie spirit of giving back to the community and helping others is the mentality which very much encouraged me to come to Clark three years ago,” wrote Clark senior Mitchell Harris.  “This mentality has been at the forefront of my focus more than ever over the course of this week, because I have been privileged to be surrounded by people who naturally love to give back and find great joy in it.”

Each evening the group dined together, discussed their experiences, and also reflected the underlying causes of the social and economic challenges that affect their adopted neighborhood.

“I am constantly inspired by Clark students and their idealism and commitment,” said David Coyne, director of Hillel at Clark.  “This program gave us the opportunity to have an intense set of experiences together – not only volunteering, cooking, eating, and socializing together – but also learning about ourselves and one another, about the values we have and the sources that we identify in tracing them to their roots, and about the nature of the Clark-Main South relationship, about what it truly means to be a good neighbor. “

Read the Worcester Telegram & Gazette's story on the Interfaith Alternative Spring Break at Clark.

Clark University Vice President for Government and Community Relations, Jack Foley, attended one of the dinner sessions and enlightened the students about the history of the Main South neighborhood and the relationship Clark shares with the local agencies and community. The director of Clark’s Office for Community Engagement and Volunteerism, Micki Davis, also spoke to the group about the value of volunteering and about how to access her office and the local agencies to inquire about ongoing volunteering.

Besides this spring-break’s benefits of community, team building and personal enrichment, the students had to pay a nominal fee ($15) to participate, as the cost of the program was underwritten by generous grants from Clark University Student Council and Clark’s office of Community Engagement and Volunteerism.

More photos and reflections by the students are available on the Clark Interfaith Alternative Spring Break blog.

For more information please contact Clark University Hillel Director David Coyne at 508-793-7296 or 508-494-4053, or Clark Hillel.  

~ Gitanjali Laad, M.S.P.C. '12

Photos by Paige LaMarche '06, Unurbat Erdenemukh '14, and Gaia Khairina '15