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Students Use 'Alternative Winter Break' to Change Lives

Students Use 'Alternative Winter Break' to Change Lives

Posted: March 15, 2019

A group of Buffalo State students volunteered over winter break to help residents of Puerto Rico recover from hurricanes Maria and Irma.

Over 30 applications were received for the Alternative Winter Break in Puerto Rico held in January. Among those students who applied were Olivia Harbol, Holly Seager, Brianna Sprole, and Xylina Ulloa. The trip to aid in post-hurricane rebuilding efforts became possible through SUNY in collaboration with the nonprofit organization All Hands & Hearts.

“I was so excited. I ran into my roommate’s bedroom and had a dance party for a long time because I was so happy,” said Harbol, after receiving the news that she was selected for the trip.

Of the 36 students who applied, eight students were selected by the Civic and Community Engagement Office.

Sprole said she applied to make a difference.

“I believe that the United States should have done more in the wake of the disaster,” she said. “I feel that we are very disconnected from Puerto Rico and wanted the opportunity to experience the culture and island for myself.”

For the Alternative Break, students traveled for a week to locations in Puerto Rico such as San Juan and Yabucoa. The trip focused on roof and window repair, mold remediation, and sanitation for the many homes devastated by the hurricanes.

“As site leaders, we met with the directors of the Alternative Break Program and discussed the social justice issues, how and what civic engagement was, and how we would practice and integrate these practices into this trip to Puerto Rico,” said Ulloa.

Prior to the trip, students participated in orientations and fundraisers to prepare for their stay. They were ecstatic when they received the news that in addition to fundraising, SUNY would cover airfare for all students involved.

“SUNY and the Governor’s office have promised involvement in the rebuilding efforts in Puerto Rico by college students. We were fortunate to have that support” said Aurora Schunk, assistant director of the Civic and Community Engagement Office.

Upon arrival, the students noticed there were full repairs in cities such as San Juan and other tourist areas; although on the outskirts and in smaller cities, many buildings and homes still needed work. All Hands & Hearts has restored over 400 homes since January 2018, but there are still some 900 homes in the queue.

The work involved included a lot of repairs for the homes. Roof work included drying roofs, getting rid of old sealant, and laying down layers of new sealant.

“We worked eight-hour days on varying projects throughout the group,” said Sprole.

“The most challenging part for me was the mask for the sanitation work,” Seager said. “The mask was hard because I get claustrophobic when things are over my mouth, so every 10 minutes or so I would need to go outside and take the mask off so I could breathe. But it was worth it because of how grateful the homeowners were.”

The most rewarding part of their experience was the gratitude they received from the families they worked with, the students said. The residents in the area would often come by to check on the students and bring food.

“I worked on Esmeraldo’s house and he was the kindest man,” Harbol said, referring to a resident she assisted. “Esmeraldo even told us that if this happened in our hometown, he would come and help us. He offered to have us to live there, or we could buy the house across the road to become neighbors.”

On their days off, the students had the opportunity to explore the island, traveling to El Morro and exploring Old San Juan and celebrating an annual cultural festival called Fiestas de la Calle San Sebastián (the San Sebastián Street Festival). “It was really awesome to see so many people in one place still celebrating the Christmas season,” said Harbol.

The students all spoke highly of their Alternative Winter Break experience, having left Puerto Rico with a sense of pride in helping others.

“I think this trip stoked an important fire in me for action, civic responsibility, and purpose,” Sprole said.

“The experience was fantastic! I had a great time and it was so rewarding” said Harbol. “The conditions were hard and I was definitely sore from using muscles I didn't typically use, but once you saw how happy the homeowners were, it was fantastic. They would hug you and give you food. One lady told me I was her granddaughter now.”

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