An almost inaudible squeak escapes as the joints of a step ladder open wide. Its rubber feet sink into a plush living-room carpet. Natural light does its best to permeate the half-closed blinds.
“We’re replacing these bulbs, right?” asks Susan Griffith ’19 as she ascends the ladder. A quick nod from a team member signals the affirmative. Three methodical twists unscrew the old bulb, which is then replaced with a new, energy efficient model.
This was Griffith in mid-March, volunteering in New Orleans as a participant on Trinity’s Alternative Spring Break (ASB) trip. On their first service day, the group of 12 joined Green Light New Orleans to install compact fluorescent bulbs in area homes. In an effort to reduce the city’s carbon footprint, the nonprofit offers this service free of charge, on top of a gardening program and rain barrel installation.
As they worked, students chatted amicably with homeowners about their lives. They exhibited no trepidation about meeting strangers, noting that they meet new people every day on Trinity’s campus. Crisscrossing the city in vans, students worked together to find homes, portion out and install the appropriate number of bulbs, and record their progress.
This was the first taste of service for Trinity ASB in the Crescent City. The group, composed of students from a mix of majors and class years, had come to explore the theme of environmental justice. Site leaders Austen Hall ’16 and Pooja Bollampally ’17 had organized five service days and one cultural exploration day to investigate the topic. Students toured the French Quarter, the Garden District, and the Uptown/Carrollton neighborhood on their exploration day.
Amani Canada ’20, an environmental studies major from Houston, applied for ASB because she missed volunteering, as she’d done with groups like the YMCA.
“I was excited to serve with classmates who I knew would each bring a different perspective and attitude to volunteering,” says Canada. “On the trip, nightly reflections pushed us to think about the bigger picture and how problems in New Orleans might relate to one another.”
At Green Light New Orleans, Canada saw a nonprofit that brought sustainable living directly to the community. She liked how close the organization was to the people it served and the way it used in-person visits to educate about climate change. Canada shared this observation at one of the reflections Hall and Bollampally facilitated before the group adjourned each evening.
Reflections were a core component of the trip due to Scott Brown, Trinity’s assistant director of experiential learning, who oversees ASB programming and service learning opportunities.
“Through reflection, I wanted students to become more confident in expressing themselves and their ideas while also listening to others' perspectives and life experiences,” says Brown. “Ultimately, I wanted students to gain a deeper awareness of themselves, each other, and their ability to be effective leaders in their communities.”
Bollampally, a sociology major, was asked by Brown to be an ASB site leader after he observed her leadership as a volunteer coordinator for TUVAC, the Trinity University Volunteer Action Committee. In addition to planning the trip’s day-to-day logistics, she and Hall encouraged participants to think critically about their experiences and to use previous classroom knowledge to inform their reflection contributions.
“The discussions we facilitated produced some really insightful answers and it was great to hear my fellow students think so deeply about our service,” says Bollampally.
In addition to Green Light New Orleans, ASB also served with The Green Project, Groundwork New Orleans, and the Lower 9th Ward Center for Sustainable Engagement and Development (CSED). Each of these nonprofits were selected by Bollampally and Hall, who were responsible for the coordination of each visit. They also organized travel to-and-from every nonprofit. The planning and execution of this trip tested and fortified the leadership skills of both site leaders.
Hall, a recent AmeriCorps Public Ally partnered with Trinity, says he learned adaptability and group management skills as a trip leader. Like Bollampally, he stresses the importance of daily service reflections, an “intentional” step taken to ensure that the trip was a learning experience.
“Students were able to bring theoretical knowledge from the classroom and connect that to the experiences they were having in New Orleans,” says Hall. “We had conversations about the social and economic dynamics of the city, about confronting our own privilege, and the parts of the city we were seeing, among other discussions.”
Griffith, a history major from Concord, N.H., participated in ASB to better understand the complexities of New Orleans. To avoid insularity, she volunteers “to gain an appreciation of parts of society separate” from her life. Recalling a previous trip to New Orleans for a college visit, Griffith says service changes your perspective on a place, how you interact with it, and even the neighborhoods you visit.
Her favorite service days were those where she could physically see the impact of her labor. Motivated by the satisfaction of a job “well-done,” Griffith maintains that there should be an element of sacrifice to volunteering.
“Service is supposed to be work,” says Griffith. “There are parts that can be fun, like the sense of camaraderie and accomplishment, but what’s important is how service benefits a community and that’s what’s really rewarding.”
Each evening, ASB participants shared their perspectives on service at dinners hosted by Trinity alumni living in New Orleans. Steven Rueb ’88, vice president and director of government and municipal trading at Dorsey & Company, was proud to welcome students into his Uptown home.
Rueb and his wife, Tisha, prepared a New Orleans-style feast complete with crawfish, shrimp, a Doberge cake, and other delicacies.
Rueb, an economics major, called ASB a “wonderful opportunity” for Trinity students to “see the fabric of New Orleans in a more real way” and to create “lasting memories in a unique city.”
“Trips like this are a tribute to the type of academic institution that Trinity is and the students that it attracts,” says Rueb. “These are individuals willing to stretch themselves and look for opportunities to experience something different, and I’m glad the school chose New Orleans because I was happy to meet these students.”
Trinity has a long history of alternative spring break trips, sending students to locations as varied as Georgia and Dominica. Trips are designed to be student-led and affordable, with the trip costs subsidized through alumni participation and free lodging. On this trip, ASB stayed at the Grace Lutheran Church in New Orleans. Students serve approximately 40 hours over a five-day span.
With a successful ASB in the books, Brown hopes participants from this trip will volunteer as future site leaders. He looks forward to fortifying Trinity’s service learning opportunities and providing more than one trip per year for students. And while Brown mentored Bollampally and Hall and was relied on daily for advice, he purposefully did not attend the New Orleans trip. ASB was meant to hone the site leaders’ leadership skills and promote a spirit of collaboration among the group.
Whether it was pulling weeds, painting walls, spreading gravel, or screwing in lightbulbs, a fun feeling permeated the entire trip. Maybe it was discovering Creole radio stations. Maybe it was the epic drive across I-10. Or maybe it was the huge pile of powdered sugar atop fluffy beignets at Café Du Monde. Who knows? Somewhere along the line, between service sites and Cajun cooking, 12 Trinity strangers became friends and learned more than they ever thought possible.
This fall, Pooja Bollampally ’17 will begin a master’s program in public health, with a concentration in social and behavioral sciences, at Yale University. Also at Yale, Austen Hall ’16 will start a Ph.D. in philosophy come fall.