Kerry Tousignant ('12)

"Giving back gives you a window into others' worlds but also a window into your own. "

Kerry Tousignant worked at the East Coast Migrant Head Start Project in Lakeland, Fla., as part of her first ASB trip.

Kerry Tousignant worked at the East Coast Migrant Head Start Project in Lakeland, Fla., as part of her first ASB trip.

Tousignant submitted this letter to the Community Service-Learning office after her first Alternative Service Break trip.

Last winter, I was a freshman trying to find my place at JMU. I'd joined a couple clubs, but nothing seemed that different from the organizations I'd joined in high school. Officers, dues, meetings and minutes— it was all the same. So when I heard about Community Service-Learning and its Alternative Spring Break trips, I knew I should look into it. My volunteering in Harrisonburg was limited by my lack of a car, but here was an opportunity to travel (one of my favorite things) and to make a difference. I went to the interest session and then to the lottery night, and sat there sweating while I prayed that my number would be called.

Months later, I joined eight other JMU students and a faculty coordinator in two sweet JMU minivans, and we began our trip to Lakeland, Fla. The next day, we were welcomed with open arms by the staff of East Coast Migrant Head Start Project. Over the following week, we logged in hours of playing with the preschool-age children at the center.

Someone might think "OK, so you played with kids, you can do that in Harrisonburg and get paid as a babysitter. Why'd you go away for that?" But we didn't just play with kids. Between the coordination of our trip leaders, Alli Rosen ('10) and Tara Neel ('09) and the administrators at ECMHSP, our volunteers were treated to much more.

Some of the memorable experiences for me include accompanying parents from the center to an orange grove. We helped pick oranges for a few hours and left feeling scratched, sweaty and humbled. We did our best to fill up the 100-lb sacks migrant workers carry, but our pace was nothing compared to their pace — the pace they have to keep to make money to support their family, even if the total comes to less than minimum wage for an hour. As we retreated to our airconditioned minivan, my group reflected on how lucky we are to live in middle- to upper-class America.

One night, Joni, our coordinator at ECMHSP, set up an immigration discussion dinner at one of the centers. Fifteen to 30 migrant parents came and shared with us their stories and concerns with immigration and deportation. Our entire group and most parents in the room had tears in their eyes when one parent said (translated from Spanish): "Every day we leave for work not knowing if we'll see our children that night. US Immigration could pick us up on the side of the road and deport us immediately with no chance to get our children back." It was heartbreaking and enlightening.

Kishan Jayashimha ('11) spends some time with one of the children at ECMHSP.

Another JMU ASB trip participant, Kishan Jayashimha ('11), spends some time with one of the children at ECMHSP.

So was our trip just playing with children? No. We had many opportunities, from picking oranges to conducting playground safety checks, from a parent board meeting at the center to sitting in on an ESL (English as a Second Language) class. I was fortunate enough to travel with the center's social workers as they conducted a home visit to check on a little girl who had been absent from the center for several days. We entered a dusty, dirty trailer to see a tired mom and her tired and coughing girl, who had been out of school due to a lung ailment. Luckily, I was at the center two days later, when the recovering girl entered the facility and upon seeing me, smiled and took my hand.

My Alternative Spring Break trip was life-changing. Before I left, I was another freshman trying to find my way at a school of 17,000 students. When I returned, I was more sure of myself and my goals and becoming more aware of the world around me. ASB opened my eyes. I also left Lakeland as a soon-to-declare social work major, which is a story involving me, one of my trip leaders, late-night (separate) showers and a long conversation about our trip. (And those are all the details I'll release!) I look forward to starting my social work classes this semester, and I have long-term plans of going on to graduate school to get my master's, and then hopefully I'll work at a nonprofit as an immigration-rights advocate. Get ready, world! With the help of Alternative Spring Break, I'm ready to take it on.

Thank you, Community Service-Learning, for everything you do and put into your Alternative Break Program. I have a photo album full of memories of my time in Florida, as well as a significant change in myself, my perspective and my goals. Giving back gives you a window into others' worlds but also a window into your own. Thank you for a fantastic experience! I'll definitely be back, hopefully as a trip leader in 2010!