Habitat for Humanity, Global Brigades allow students to make a difference on alternative spring break trips

Claudia Vaughan | Senior Scene Editor

Courtesy of Taylor Smith and Vanessa Salazar

Several dozen Washington University students took advantage of spring break trips to Louisiana and Honduras with Habitat for Humanity and Global Brigades, respectively, to perform community service. These volunteers returned to campus after a week of hard work mostly happy to have participated in the service opportunities.

By the time spring break arrives, many students are feeling burned out and in need of a much-deserved escape from papers and exams. Yet while some choose to venture to laid-back lake houses or breezy, boozy beaches (read: the notorious Panama City Beach), others opt for trips that will help greater charitable causes. While there is nothing wrong with taking some “me time” for a week, those who act more selflessly should be commended for their altruism.

Washington University’s Habitat for Humanity chapter took a group of 16 students down to Thibodaux, La., to help build two houses in a Habitat neighborhood over the break. The work was hard, the sun was hot and the days were long, but the travelers said the experience really brought them closer to one another. Sophomore Taylor Smith was one of the individuals on the trip.

“I am really, really glad I spent my break on this trip. I had never done a Habitat build before, and it was a really good experience,” Smith said. “Everyone in the group was welcoming, and we bonded over blood sweat and tears and paint. I would definitely recommend spending your spring break doing a service trip.” 

The entire week was not completely filled with manual labor, either. During their down time, the students were also able to explore the nearby New Orleans area. And though they were not off in an entirely different country, many still felt they were able to get a slice of a completely different culture during the brief time they were in Louisiana.

“This trip was worthwhile because I not only got the mental break I needed from school but also got to help a community rebuild and grow,” Smith said. “I was able to experience a part of the country I haven’t been to, which included eating alligator and frog legs!”

Some students traveled even farther away to spread their support. Sophomore Vanessa Salazar participated in the Global Brigades Medical and Public Health Brigade in Honduras over her spring break. In total, 29 Washington University students went on the trip, with two leaders and two grad students accompanying the undergrads. For the first three days of the trip, the group set up a clinic at a military base in Montana de Isopo, a surrounding Honduran village about 2 1/2 hours from Tegucigalpa.

“I absolutely loved this trip,” Salazar said. “I usually do nothing productive over break—all I do is rot away at home while watching endless TV marathons. I was glad I was able to do something different.”

The group saw around 500 patients over the course of their first three days. Three volunteer doctors and one dentist accompanied them, and together the volunteers offered Pap smears, doctor consultations and dental checkups for tooth extractions and root canals. There was also a full pharmacy that provided patients with prescribed drugs for free.

During the fourth through sixth days of the trip, the group shifted its focus to the public health part of the brigade. The students broke into three groups and were each paired with a family from Palo Verde, another Honduran village about 2 1/2 hours from Tegucigalpa and located atop a remote mountain.

For this second half of the trip, the students helped lay concrete floor in the village’s houses that only had dirt floors, which are dangerous because they allow parasites to enter the bodies of barefoot individuals. They also built a health station with a shower, toilet and water storage unit as well as an eco-stove with a closed chimney that had an opening outside the house. This prevented the family from inhaling the smoke from the firewood while it cooked meals.

According to Salazar, the trip was certainly an eye-opening one. Though she travels to Colombia each summer, this was her first time going to any other country in Latin America and her first time in Central America.

“It broadened my views of the world and showed me that some problems are universal, and poverty will always be everywhere,” Salazar said. “I liked seeing the Honduran culture. The people were so friendly and welcoming to such complete strangers. I loved Public Health the best. We got so close to our family, and the children were so sweet.”

On the final day of the trip, Salazar said, one of the children asked if she would be coming back again tomorrow—a heartbreakingly innocent question that made her feel sad about leaving.

“I didn’t know how to explain to him that we were going home and that I would, in fact, never see him again. It was a bittersweet goodbye, but I’ll always remember this experience. I really hope to do this trip again,” Salazar said. “I would definitely recommend any Wash. U. student to participate in any service trip, especially Global Brigades. Their holistic model makes it feel like I’m part of something bigger and that I’m actually making a difference, even if it is a small one.”

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