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A life-changing alternate spring break in service-learning

A recent alumna of UW-Eau Claire, Tara Byrne, describes in the following narrative her experiences as part of a service-learning and leadership trip to Indianapolis last spring. The concept of "servant leadership" was first coined by Robert Greenleaf in a 1970 essay titled "The Servant as Leader," and is grounded in the notion that one has a strong desire to serve first, which then becomes a conscious desire to lead. As you will read in Tara's story, this trip instilled in her a strong desire to be of service to communities in need, and from that desire emerged natural leadership strengths. 

By Tara Byrne, '15

On the first Saturday of spring break 2015, a group of 23 strangers met in the Towers parking lot at 7:30 a.m to cram themselves and their luggage into four minivans and make the 9-hour road trip down to Indiana. Some were sleepy, groggy, while others were as wide-eyed as toddlers on Christmas morning, but all were overflowing with anticipation of the week that lay ahead. And thus, our journey began.

While most of you may have spent your spring break in deep dedication to Netflix on your parents’ couch, or perhaps making memories on some sunny, sandy beach, a small group of your fellow Blugolds chose to forego a relaxing, rejuvenating vacation. Instead, we attended the Alternative Spring Break trip to Indianapolis, Indiana, during which we devoted our time, and lots of energy, to service-leadership work. This annual trip is organized and facilitated by the staff  in the Activities, Involvement and Leadership Office, as well as student facilitators. Their goal in hosting this trip is to teach students what it means to be a servant leader and to show how fantastically rewarding voluntary, selfless work can be.

This trip focuses on the issues of poverty, homelessness and hunger in the metro areas of Indianapolis. It aims to instill in students the many values found in servant leadership and to provide knowledge of what exactly it means to be a servant leader. I was simply one of 23 amazing people on this trip, and although I do not want to speak for each of these individuals, I think it is fair to say that this article will express the positive experiences and emotions that we all shared.

Of the eight days we spent in and around Indianapolis, two days were allowed for travel, five days were occupied by service-learning and leadership, and one day was open for exploring the city.  Over the five workdays, we volunteered with six different organizations at a total of nine locations across the city. Each day held new surprises and experiences; each provided greater perspective on the ways in which poverty can effect an incredible amount of people from all walks of life. The organizations that we had the honor of serving included Jameson Camp, The Cristo Rey Network at Providence Cristo Rey High School, Habitat for Humanity Restore, Rebuilding the Wall, Wheeler Mission Ministries and Gleaners Food Bank of Indiana Inc. Each of these organizations was so incredible to work with, and I could literally write a novel with all of the amazing experiences, memories and knowledge that each one provided us. The work we did and the people we met along the way had such an impact on making this trip an unforgettable experience for all. 

Prior to the trip, we were to read "The Case for Servant Leadership" by Kent M. Keith. The objective here was to expand our knowledge on what servant leadership entails and what it really means to be a servant leader. Each night of the trip, we had a group reflection during which we discussed our activities of the day and how they played into shaping our roles as servant leaders. This bit of literature provides seven key practices of servant leaders, and our goal was to attain and utilize these practices throughout the week. They include: self-awareness, listening, changing the pyramid, developing your colleagues, coaching not controlling, unleashing the energy and intelligence of others and foresight. We learned that servant leadership takes a highly moral approach to service and is beneficial for everyone involved, from public and private businesses to academic and nonprofit organizations.

Each location we volunteered at proved this to be true and showed us that one merely needs the desire to help and to serve in order to become a servant leader.

Some of these seven practices are ones that we all had a good idea of prior to the trip. The first is simply having the knowledge of one’s own strengths and weaknesses and how these characteristics can and do affect others. As we were constantly working in groups of various sizes and performing a very wide range of tasks, many of which included significant physical labor, we each had to know what we were and were not capable of doing and how we may act or react to certain things and in certain situations. We all stretched ourselves and our abilities in order to accomplish tasks that we didn’t necessarily have experience with. Whether it was wielding a sledgehammer, uprooting a tree, using post-hole diggers, chopping firewood or using any other tools we had never used before, we all were willing to test our limits. This also plays into the second practice of servant leaders: listening. Now, this seems like an easy, almost second-nature quality. However, when undergoing such tasks with a group of new people, it is, and was, essential to be able to communicate on efficient and effective levels. Every organization we worked with provided us with duties that required strong teamwork, and this could not have been possible without our ability to listen with open minds to instructions, directions, concerns, ideas and encouragements.

This was one of the many outstanding aspects of our group’s dynamic. We were all there to work as much as we physically could because we knew from the get-go that these organizations and the people they serve were in dire need of any help they could find. It was as though we could feel and sense how much our help was needed, and we were determined to do as much as we could. We had such effective teamwork and shared effort that some days, the organizations we were working with actually ran out of things that they needed us to do. A perfect example of this occurred on our last day of service, at Gleaners food bank.

Gleaners provides food for almost a third of low-income/poverty-stricken families in the entire state of Indiana. Our first task was to put together disaster relief packages containing 40 pounds of non-perishable food items. All 23 of us worked in an assembly line filling box after box. The workers at Gleaners had planned for this to be our only task for the whole day, and they did not anticipate that we would reach their quota in the hours we were there. They told us that a group the size of ours had finished 450-500 boxes in about 3-4 hours the previous day. Well, we proved to be over achievers — we completed 583 boxes in just about 2 ½ hours. The workers were beyond impressed, and we were ecstatic and so proud at our accomplishment. We had essentially just fed almost 600 families in need, and we still had half a day’s work to do.

In that second half of the day, we completed 1,582 back-sacks. Back-sacks are bags of food that are distributed to schools across the state. Each bag provides nutritionally balanced meals for children of low-income families to take home to ensure that these children have sufficient food to eat over the weekend. I ask that you take a moment to think of how significant that is. We fed nearly 1,600 children who would have otherwise gone hungry, and this task wasn’t even in our anticipated agenda for the day. When they informed us of these numbers, we erupted in applause, cheers and hugs. Each one of us had gleaming smiles that just would not and could not disappear. To say we felt proud and accomplished is putting it far beyond mildly.

Our group continuously expressed the characteristics of servant leaders throughout the week in almost everything we did. They all intertwine with each other and, to some, may seem like skills easily acquired at school, work or in other professional settings. However, it is important to bring awareness to these practices because they actually go much deeper than their face value suggests.

There was one organization in particular that we worked with over the course of two days, known as Rebuilding the Wall (RtW). The time spent at this location was some of the most emotional, hard-hitting, and inspirational for many people in our group. This organization was started in attempts to reform a neighborhood that was suffering from drugs, foreclosures, violence and just general severe poverty among its residents.

RtW was started by a woman named Mary who was raised in a fervently religious family wherein she was taught that she was better than other people simply because of her beliefs. While in college, she had a mental breakdown that lead to the greatest wake-up call of her life. She immediately abandoned the belief that she was better than anyone, for any reason, and decided it was time to start taking action. She moved into this poor neighborhood and started doing whatever she could to help the people. She eventually established lifelong friendships with anyone and everyone, from drug users and dealers to prostitutes trying to feed their children by any means possible. It didn’t take her long to realize that the things people may do for money in order to survive and provide for their families do not define them as people. She learned that these people do such things because more often than not, it is the only option they have, given the situations they are in. Eventually Mary met the man who is now her husband, and together they continued developing this neighborhood through Rebuilding the Wall.

The organization has seen its share of extreme highs and damaging lows. Hearing the entire story brought tears to our eyes, and I only wish I had enough time and space to retell it in more detail here. Let it suffice to say that the co-founders of RtW made the decision to dedicate their lives to the people of this community. They entered as strangers seeing that help was needed and have become like family to many people in the neighborhood because of all the work they have done and because of the surplus of love and selflessness they brought in. Through opening their home to neighborhood children, helping drug addicts find sobriety, creating a sense of community which inherently suppresses gang- and drug-related violence and crime, the creators of RtW have changed many lives and truly have rebuilt this community, brick by brick, heart by heart and life by life.

Our time with RtW and the other organizations we aided, and almost more significantly, the people we met at these places, truly showed us what it means to be a servant leader. Yes, one could learn the seven practices and try to apply them in the activities of their everyday lives. But having the experiences we had proved undoubtedly that becoming a servant leader is so much more than helping those in need. It is about finding the inner power to become entirely selfless in everything you do. It is about putting the needs of others, whether they are less or more fortunate than you, before your own and doing so for no benefit of your own other than knowing you had a positive impact on someone’s life.  It is about seeing what needs to be done and doing it without being asked or required, but rather doing it simply because you can.

Personally, when I registered for this trip, I did so because I figured it would be a good opportunity to experience a new-to-me city and a quick, sure way to obtain my required service-learning hours in time for graduation. I feel safe in saying that most of the students in the group attended mainly for the former reason, while some would surely agree with the latter as well. I did not expect to make deep connections with numerous people; I did not expect to be so emotionally invested in, or changed by, the work I would be doing; and I definitely did not anticipate that my life would be changed in a mere seven-day adventure.

These types of emotions, of pride in our work and the pure joy of knowing how many people we were helping, stirred among the group the entire week. It is something that is hard to describe in words unless you have felt it firsthand. It is such an immensely powerful thing to dedicate yourself entirely to such selfless service. We were not getting paid, we were not getting college credits, we were not getting any physical or material rewards for the work we were doing. But what we did gain was so much more than any of these things. We gained a sense of purpose, of pride and of achievement.