Alternative Spring Break takes students to a secluded small town in West Virginia

The Daily News

Elyse Brenner and Mayu Watanabe shovel $6,000 worth of coal into a furnace. This is the 10th year of Ball State’s Alternate Spring Break program. DN PHOTO CARIEMA WOOD
Elyse Brenner and Mayu Watanabe shovel $6,000 worth of coal into a furnace. This is the 10th year of Ball State’s Alternate Spring Break program. DN PHOTO CARIEMA WOOD

Freshman nursing major Tessa VanVelzer could have gone to Panama City, Fla., to relax on the beach. Instead she went to the small, poverty-stricken community of Caretta, W.Va., a place in the seclusion of mountains. Many houses were only charred remains, from what VanVelzer was told was the result of an epidemic of poor electrical wiring. She has done similar volunteer projects in the past, so she wasn’t shocked at the amount of poverty in the town. Her biggest shock came from getting to know the locals.

A local Caretta man, who was supervising the students in their building projects, invited the students to his home. Although he was lending his tools and time to rebuild the houses of his neighbors, his own home was as VanVelzer described one of the worst. The floors were warped, the outside of the small house was visibly rotting. 

“He has so little, but he was willing to give so much,” VanVelzer said. “I really saw that when we visited his home. The people there have a really big heart ... I didn’t realize people like that existed.”

VanVelzer was struck by the number of people who “had almost nothing but still found ways to serve.” 

She was one of the 31 Ball State students who went to Caretta as part of the university’s Alternate Spring Break program. The 27 undergraduate students and four graduate students were accompanied by a staff member to do volunteer work in this small town in West Virginia. 

Volunteers did manual labor in the housing sector of the community. The group worked to renovate six houses and a community center, performing tasks like replacing flooring and installing a handicap rail. Junior criminal justice major Marcus Kelly not only gained from being able to help a worthy cause, but he also learned repair and building skills that he can use back home such as dry walling, patching roofs and putting in floors.

“On the trip I realized that people will appreciate anything, whether it’s something as small as a smile or big, like building them a house,” Kelly said.

Part of the focus of the trip was also on the effect of poverty on K-12 education. Volunteers hosted a “Dr. Seuss Literacy Day” at a K-8 elementary school where they distributed books to the students. The group also met with high school seniors to discuss college possibilities. Students received information on how to get to and succeed in college, as well as information on how to apply for Free Appication for Student Financial Aid and other financial aid opportunities. 

“A lot of these kids are told that college is not an option, but there are different ways to get there,” VanVelzer said. “You really feel isolated in the mountains; cut off from society, but we wanted them to know there’s more out there.”

The group coordinated with Big Creek People of Action, a local philanthropy group established in 1990 to improve the quality of life in the area. Much of the funding for the trip came out of pocket for the volunteers or from whatever funds they could raise individually. The trip was open to all students with a variety of majors represented, including nursing, journalism and education. 

Japanese foreign exchange student Mayu Watanabe recalled when searching for volunteer opportunities that she wanted to “go somewhere warm.” The junior education major said she was interested about poverty in the United States, a subject that doesn’t get much attention internationally. 

Kelly and VanVelzer plan to attend more alternative breaks and continue to do community service. 

“Giving back is one of the most fun things to do,” Kelly said. “When you do, you get a lot more back. I’ll take that over partying and alcohol any day.”


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