By Joyce DeWallace, Contributing Writer
Northborough – For most college students, the annual rite of spring is a trip to somewhere warm and sunny, soaking up the sun on the beach during the day and partying at night. Not so for Emily Polanowicz, a junior at Boston College. Along with about 400 other students, Polanowicz chose to donate her break time to the Appalachia Volunteers Program, where she was assigned to do carpentry work at a Habitat for Humanity project in Raleigh, N.C.
She joins a rapidly growing movement that started in the early ‘80s known as alternative spring break trips. Mushrooming in popularity among both high school and college students, the alternative break trips put small groups of about a dozen volunteers into a community nonprofit organization that needs help with a week-long project.
At Boston College, the Appalachia Volunteers Program is committed to building community through loving, learning and serving, according to its website. Its mission is to learn about the structural and social realities in the United States that leave some people living in poverty and then to discuss the injustices and life situations that create this state of affairs.
“I call it getting out of the B.C. bubble,” Polanowicz said. “You get so busy you forget what’s going on somewhere else. I signed up in November of 2014 and then started attending the weekly meetings . There’s a lot of different things we do. Most every meeting there would be a speaker, either a Jesuit or a professor or someone who has participated in the program in the past. They would give us their perspective on the importance of faith and service learning. It was good to hear someone else’s point of view. It opens your eyes to what to expect.”
Members of the project are responsible for fundraising; each participant had to sell $200 worth of raffle tickets and write a letter explaining the trip and asking for donations. Polanowicz successfully raised $850 with her letter campaign. As a driver, she also had to attend driver meetings with police officers to learn safe driving techniques and what to do in case of an emergency.
During the first week in March, her group and four other teams boarded a bus to Greensboro, N.C. From there, Polanowicz drove the rental van to Raleigh and their home for the week at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship Church. They joined two other groups, one from Pennsylvania and another from Florida, sleeping on the floor in sleeping bags.
Polanowicz’s group worked at a site where four houses were in different stages of completion. Their main task was sheathing the walls with wallboard, cutting out window and doors, and then putting them up.
“I really enjoyed it because you could see how much progress we were making every day,” she said. “It was really gratifying. I loved working with the power tools. When we put up the first wall, the supervisor was so happy. We all signed it. We had the chance to meet a lot of people including the local volunteers and learned a lot about the Habitat for Humanity mission. I liked having experienced mentors and teachers who could do everything.”
On the last day, she met the woman and her two children, ages 10 and 13, who were going to live in the house.
“That was awesome,” she said. “What you’re doing is making a difference for real people. It was nice to see how excited they were about the house and yard and talk about what flowers and plants they wanted to put in. We had a chance to try to understand their point of view, see their dedication, and witness their happiness to have the opportunity to get a new home.”