Alternative Bronco Breaks was on my radar before I attended Western. A coworker said it was the best experience she had during her time at WMU. Then during my sophomore year, I met the most charitable, social justice activist I have so far during my time here. Turns out, she was the president of the program at the time. She shared the same sentiment of my old co worker. So, I applied and now almost two years later, I serve on ABB’s eboard as recruitment chair, doing exactly what those two women did for me; spread the word about the power of doing a trip with ABB.
In short, ABB members travel the country on holiday breaks serving communities in need. We’ve worked with Foster Youth, Hurricane Relief, Animal Rights, HIV awareness and more. The RSO is one of the longest serving and most respected on WMU’s campus, but that doesn't come without criticism. We engage in voluntourism, which by definition is just volunteering while traveling. But, the word voluntourism has a new, deserved stigma attached to it. As the trend of voluntourism rises, so do for profit travel programs that cost thousands of dollars and do little good for the communities they claim to serve. Often, they end up hurting the communities more. People that go on these trips often go to rural areas in South America or African countries to take photos with small children in poverty, get likes on Instagram, then leave without doing long lasting service. This is a shame; ABB does not condone for this.
We work with already established, non profit organizations such as Habitat for Humanity and Community Collaborations. The organizations we work with survive of volunteers and without them, most would not function. On the trip I served on, we worked alongside a group called Nechama, a group that travels helping with disaster relief for free to people who can't afford it. We worked on homes of people that simply could not afford paid help. One woman had been waiting for help for over a year, but a local group never stepped up to the plate. That's where we came in. In two short days we were able to move all her belongings out of flood water and get her home in a condition that would allow it to finally be worked on. It was cold, dirty work that did not include “cute” tourist pictures. In the second house we worked on, my group scooped poopy floor boards. Dogs had pooped all over the house but the floors needed to be removed because the floods had ruined it. I laugh when people tell me ABB is purely a vacation because I dare them to spend a vacation scooping poop water.
While it's not just a vacation, it’s still an incredible enjoyable experience It allows students to travel to places most our bank accounts could never dream of. In a few days, I leave for my second trip to Utah. I have never been out west and could not afford to if it wasn't for ABB. I also get to work with animals in a capacity that I have been desperate to do since coming to Kalamazoo, but it's not available in this area. This is the beauty of ABB. Students from all walks of life are afforded the opportunity to expand their travels and their knowledge.
For example, we have another trip this Spring that works with HIV awareness. This is perfect for students passionate about health care. Some may argue that if a student wants experience working with something that specific, do an internship. But the issue with that is it’s going to be either unpaid and/or affect study time. Doing an ABB trip does not take away time from school and only takes a week away from work obligations. It's an easier commitment financially and academically.
Another question often posed is why not just volunteer locally, or donate the 250$ to a local cause? The fact of the matter is almost all of our participants do in one way or another, volunteer locally either in kalamazoo or on campus. It's a trait we look for during the interview process to weed out the candidates that only want to use this as an opportunity just to travel, not to serve. As for why not just donate that money, that takes away an opportunity to learn in a more diverse way. Students this Spring are going to work with one of the biggest LGBTQ centers in the U.S. For 250$, that's a major opportunity for people passionate about the cause. Some people going on that trip already work for LGBTQ groups in campus. With this, they are expanding on that experience, a worthy investment.
Lastly, the best benefit I see in ABB is it's diversity. While it could still use some work on racial diversity, which is an issue my co-chair and I are putting at the forefront of our recruitment, it’s diverse in every other regard. Politically, religiously, by class, major and more. We have engineering majors alongside English majors, who would have probably never met otherwise. While it’s not advertised, we do offer scholarships to people can’t afford a fee, which opens up the opportunity to students from all financial backgrounds. My trip had extreme liberals (people with pro-choice tattoos and Bernie Banners) and e-board members from College republicans and devout pro-lifers. It had highly religious members and intense atheist. We all became best friends. We spent one night talking for hours about our differences and about how beautiful it was that we could come together. This is something that would not have happened if we weren't working together for a week. I base this theory off the fact one major political group on campus has refused debate from the other for a year now, which shows how divided this campus and country can be- but this tripped forced members from those two parties to come together. It was a learning experience essential to becoming better humans, better students and better citizens over all, something that is lacking all around.
The resume building and other personal benefits cannot be denied. Frankly, I'm excited to go to Utah a little more than I am excited for some of my local weekly volunteer work I do, for purely selfish reason. I need a break from the monotony here, for mental health reasons. But if it's not harming people like other forms of voluntourism due, what is the shame in wanting to see the country and serve new places? And spending your hard earned money to take such a rare opportunity to do so? ABB has no hidden motive- we aren't out to spread the word of God. We aren't spreading any sort of political agenda. We are simply displaying WMU Students to the country as best we can and serving communities that need it most. The traveling and personal benefits are just the bonuses.
I think the criticism that sometimes come toward ABB is understandable, but comes from a place of ignorance. I urge those who question to take a leap of faith and apply for a trip, and like me and the two women who encouraged me to join, you’ll be amazed at the power of ABB.