Flashback: Break is 'catalyst for change'

Break is 'catalyst for change'

Livingston Daily
by Amanda Whitesell
April 28, 2014

Smells of freshly cut grass and wood chips were among those Kaitlynn Cortez once took for granted each day.

That is, before she spent her spring break tutoring underprivileged youth in Baja California, Mexico, while many of her classmates likely spent the time lounging on the beach.

"It was a humbling and life-changing experience," she said. "It makes me feel like I did something on my spring break."

Cortez, along with 11 other students who joined her from Howell, Brighton, Pinckney, and Kensington Woods high schools, are among the growing number of high school and college students who are giving up traditional go-wild spring breaks for service-learning trips.

The number of colleges and universities offering alternative break programs has shown a consistent increase for the last two decades, according to Samantha Giacobozzi, co-executive director for Break Away. The nonprofit assists campuses and communities in promoting alternative break programs that inspire lifelong active citizenship.

The increase is attributed to institutionalization of volunteer service as an integral part of the college experience, and the overwhelming interest in service along the Gulf Coast in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita, according to the nonprofit's website. In 2010, more than 72,000 students participated in alternative breaks.

Kerry Jones, a 2011 Pinckney Community High School graduate, took a volunteer trip last month through Central Michigan University's alternative breaks program. Jones spent a weekend working to preserve and document artifacts found in the Great Lakes at Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary in Alpena.

Earlier that month, the CMU criminal justice and psychology senior spent her spring break in Jonesboro, Ark., working at an area food pantry and with a Hispanic youth center. She said the experience working closely with the impoverished -- along with relevant coursework -- have helped her shape her career plans.

"I feel more sure that I want to help out people to be not so involved in crime, rather than prosecuting more people," Jones said.

Giacobozzi said the idea behind alternative breaks is to serve as a "catalyst for change," in both the community students serve and the hometown to which they return.

"Our vision is a society of active citizens," she said.

Cortez, who is no stranger to community service, volunteering more than 400 hours per year, said the biggest takeaway she received from her trip was learning to "slow down." She was named last month as the Livingston County United Way's 2013 Young Person of Distinction.

"While you're leading your life, it's important to just take a second to really soak up the moment and appreciate what I have and what's going on," she said.

On Easter, Cortez said she walked out of Shalom Lutheran Church in Putnam Township and commented to her mother, Sandie Cortez, who also went to Mexico with the group, about their fortune.

"I realized I took for granted how our air smells," she said.

Her youth pastor at the church was instrumental in planning the trip, in which Cortez and other students worked at Lantern Hill, a nonprofit community that aims to break the cycle of poverty in Mexico. More information is available at http://www.lanternonthehill.org.

Contact Daily Press & Argus reporter Amanda Whitesell at 517-552-2847 or at awhitesell@gannett.com. Follow her @MandyWhitesell on Twitter.