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University of Missouri

Breaking Good

Mizzou Alternative Breaks changes the lives of students and those they serve.

Mizzou Alternative Breaks

Emma Nicolli, Jackson Osaghae-Nosa and Arais Farah stack cans of red beans and rice on pallets at the TNKids Nutrition warehouse in Springfield, Tennessee.

Mizzou Alternative Breaks has become a tradition. The largest alternative breaks program in the country, it attracts students — freshmen through seniors — from every school and college. They travel throughout the state, nation and world to help construct Habitat for Humanity houses, create lesson plans for after-school arts and tutoring programs, and rebuild communities after natural disasters. They embark on the trips for many reasons. For some, service has always been a part of their lives. For others, they’ve heard how powerful the trips can be for themselves and those they serve. Regardless of the reason, most students return to Columbia with a greater
understanding of themselves and the world around them.

The awkwardness is palpable. Eleven University of Missouri students sit around a box of untouched cupcakes, some avoiding eye contact, a few engaging in polite conversation, most texting friends or scrolling through Instagram. It’s a week before December finals, and the MU Student Center hums quietly with the sounds of studying. It isn’t until a guy in cowboy boots reaches across a girl in Ugg boots to nab a cupcake that the energy shifts. “Someone’s got to make the first move,” he says, breaking the ice.

Mizzou Alternative Breaks

Brett Genenbacher, Jimmy Robb and Carson Miller help Project C.U.R.E. Operations Director Lindsey Moore test a donated hospital bed that will be sent to a clinic in Niger.

The students timidly share their day’s highs (Thanksgiving leftovers) and lows (finals) and then move on to discussing their upcoming service trip. They celebrate having met their fund-raising goal through the $200 participant fee and “Adopt-A-Breaker” requests to family and friends. They blunder through nicknaming their rental cars (Mystery Machine and Swagon Wagon), signing up to cook dinner and wash dishes, and reviewing the packing list.

Jackson Osaghae-Nosa, a junior biological sciences major from Florissant, Missouri, texts a friend: “Uh-oh, this is really weird. I don’t know if this is going to work.”

That’s how most Mizzou Alternative Breaks trips start: Up to 12 students are grouped together, most with nothing in common except a desire to serve. And it isn’t until they’re removed from the comfortable confines of campus that differences start to become irrelevant — because there is work to be done.

Mizzou Alternative Breaks, or MAB, started as Alternative Spring Break in 1991 when three groups of students spent a week volunteering in cities across the country instead of joining their peers in party trips to Panama City Beach or Las Vegas.

Mizzou Alternative Breaks

May Do checks a number on a bag before putting it into the correct box.

During the past 25 years, the secret of alternative-break trips has been passed down from year to year — 98 percent of students who participated say they learned from interacting with the community, 100 percent learned from the other students and 92 percent connected to people affected by the social issue addressed on their trip.

Five years ago, 88 students participated in eight trips. During the 2014–15 academic year, 1,468 students went on 129 service trips during Thanksgiving, winter, spring and weekend breaks.

Students come in as strangers. “But when you leave, you know this part of one another’s lives that no one else knows,” says May Do, a junior biological sciences major from Kansas City, Missouri, who has gone both as a participant and as a site leader.

From Jan. 9 to 18, 2015, nearly 400 students spent a week of winter break on MAB trips. Eleven of these students traveled to Nashville, Tennessee, to volunteer at three health-related nonprofits.

Mizzou Alternative Breaks

Back at St. Augustine’s Chapel at Vanderbilt University, where the students stayed for the week, Charis Gibler and May Do share their experiences sorting medical supplies at Project C.U.R.E. “If anyone is wondering, there are like 80 million different types of catheters,” jokes Gibler, a nursing major.

Students hop out of two rental cars, whose tiger tails hang from the back bumper, wet from the Nashville rain. It’s Monday morning, Jan. 11, and the students are eager to get going.

Students lead every aspect of MAB trips. As co-site leaders, May Do and Adee Levinstein, a senior nutritional sciences major from Chesterfield, Missouri, have spent the past six months reaching out to nonprofits and securing housing. “We’re in charge of four credit cards and two large vehicles,” says Levinstein, who calls Do and herself co-parents. “At this point, we’re making sure no one has to go to the hospital, there’s no drama, they’re packing their lunches and they all get in the car on time.”

The group’s first stop is Project C.U.R.E., which donates medical supplies and equipment to hospitals and clinics in developing countries. About once a week, the Nashville distribution center ships 300 to 400 boxes of gloves, syringes, X-ray machines, sterile gauze pads, Band-Aids, chairs, exam tables, hospital beds, stethoscopes, trash cans and more.

Mizzou Alternative Breaks

Boxes of medical supplies line the walls at the warehouse.

The students split into two groups. One crew spends six hours sorting, counting and packing supplies into boxes. The other crew works in the chilly warehouse, scanning and loading boxes onto pallets that at the end of the week will be shipped to clinics in Niger in Western Africa. The awkwardness of their on-campus meeting six weeks ago hasn’t worn off yet despite the seven-hour car ride. But at least now they have something to do.

Jimmy Robb, a senior biological sciences major from Maryland Heights, Missouri, picks up a box. Osaghae-Nosa scans it. Carson Miller, a sophomore health sciences major from Macon, Missouri, marks its destination. Brett Genenbacher, a sophomore health professions major from Fowler, Illinois, accounts for it on a spreadsheet. Emma Nicolli, a junior biological sciences major from St. Charles, Missouri, drops it on the pallet.

“Ooh, I got skill,” jokes Osaghae-Nosa as he scans the first of hundreds of boxes.

By the third pallet, they’ve taken off their coats and started to loosen up.

“This feels like Santa’s workshop,” Nicolli says.

“We’re like little elves,” says Osaghae-Nosa, making himself laugh. “I was an elf one year for Halloween.”

They plonk another box on the pallet.

Back inside, Levinstein; Do; Charis Gibler, a freshman nursing major from Jefferson City, Missouri; Hannah Cottrell, a senior health sciences major from Canton, Missouri; and Emily Shaw, a junior nutritional sciences major from Columbia, sort surgical blades and chitchat about pediatricians, MU professors, and the difference between whole grains and whole wheat.

‘It’s hard when you’re just packing things, but I was thinking about it, and every little blade we sorted ends up being an incision that could ultimately save a life.’

Arais Farah, a junior personal financial planning major from Ann Arbor, Michigan, the only non-health-related major in the group, has just discovered what a catheter is. “And that’s gross,” he says, causing everyone in the room to laugh.

Once the surgical blades are sorted, Farah bags them. “I’m aiming for 20 per bag, and hopefully if I’m off, it’s 21 and not 19,” he says. Cottrell steps in; each bag is supposed to have 40 blades — 20 pink and 20 brown. “Oh, no,” says a crestfallen Farah. He stares at the dozens of bags he’s already counted. “It’s OK,” Cottrell reassures. “I got you. Don’t worry.”

Over the course of the afternoon, the mood slowly shifts. It starts with the honeydew-, cookie- and strawberry-lime-flavored popsicles at Las Paletas Popsicles after a long day in the warehouse, and it continues through their nightly debriefing session at the church where they are staying.

“I was thinking about it, and every little blade we sorted could end up being an incision that ultimately saves a life,” Levinstein says.

Mizzou Alternative Breaks

After packing bags of snacks for students who are at risk of having little to eat on the weekends, Mizzou students deliver them to Coopertown Elementary School.

On the morning of Day 2 when the students arrive at Good Food for Good People, a local nonprofit that works to remove barriers to healthful eating, the nervousness has disappeared. Awkwardness doesn’t last long around organization founder Sean Siple anyway. A copy of astrologer Rob Brezsny’s Pronoia Is the Antidote for Paranoia sits on a table, and on the wall hangs a poster that says, “My body, my temple.”

As the students split into three groups — one stays behind to cook lunch and the other two to set up Love Markets, or farmers markets, at a hospital and a senior activity center — Siple encourages the group to be vulnerable. “Look for omens,” he says. “Discover your own self in the people you help.”

At Nashville General Hospital, Osaghae-Nosa dons a fanny pack and hawks raspberries and mangoes, yellow squash and Brussels sprouts. He asks a patient browsing his wares if he can help her find something. When she mentions her high blood pressure, the aspiring doctor suggests kale and sweet potatoes. “My great-aunt had a heart attack,” he says, “and that’s what the doctor told her to start eating.” The patient returns an hour later saying her doctor agreed with his recommendations.

Mizzou Alternative Breaks

Miller, Robb and Osaghae-Nosa enjoy a sweet treat at Las Paletas Popsicles.

When the students return to the Good Food for Good People headquarters for lunch, Siple, Levinstein and Cottrell present a feast of blue Hubbard squash, gold and red beets, kale and peppers, arugula salad, fruit salad, and lentils. A few students reach for their phones to take pictures. Over lunch, Siple picks their brains.

“The benefit you have to us is your out-of-the-box thinking,” he says. “From the old man to the new generation: You guys have to see a new world. The one I’ve given you doesn’t work anymore.”

For nearly an hour, they discuss ways to get more people to eat more fruits and vegetables. The money-minded Farah wonders if tax breaks could help. Robb suggests cooking classes. Cottrell talks about reforming public policy. Levinstein proposes teaching youngsters good habits.

“I want you to leave with this idea that the universe wants you to be who you are,” Siple says. “There’s a lot of pressure when you’re at this stage of development. You have to give yourself a break. One of the first things you’re going to encounter is your fears: ‘This will never work. If it did work, I couldn’t do it.’ You need to be courageous and use those fears as a steppingstone to a greater understanding of yourself and what you’re here for. You’re right where you’re supposed to be.”

On the way out, Osaghae-Nosa and Siple hug. Twice.

Mizzou Alternative Breaks

At Good Food for Good People, Miller and Genenbacher load fresh fruits and vegetables onto a truck.

By Wednesday morning, Osaghae-Nosa and Nicolli are reciting lines from the TV medical drama Grey’s Anatomy, and Levinstein, Miller and Genenbacher are still talking about Tuesday night’s Mizzou-Kentucky men’s basketball game. (The most health-conscious group members performed three pushups for every 3-pointer, two for every 2-pointer, and after turnovers held a plank until Mizzou scored. Mizzou lost 86-37, leaving their muscles as sore as their pride.)

They drive 30 miles north to TNKids Nutrition in Springfield, Tennessee, population 16,659. Every week, volunteers pack and deliver about 550 bags of snacks to students in the Robertson County school system who are at risk of having little to eat on the weekends. The MU students meet the nonprofit’s founder, Donny King, at a church, where he shares his story and his mission.

A few students shift uncomfortably when King talks about his religious background — until they hear how he and TNKids Nutrition helped a struggling kid named Jay. Then they recognize the passion and compassion in what King is saying.

“It really opened my mind,” Robb says. “If he is helping those kids, that’s great. I don’t share the same beliefs as Donny, but I totally understand what he’s doing, and I respect that.”

At the warehouse, the students pack bags with red beans and rice, juice boxes, Raisin Bran, applesauce and cheese crackers. Bransford Elementary gets 64 bags. Springfield Middle gets 21. Jo Byrns High gets 12.

The students hop in their rented cars, tiger tails flapping in the wind, and ride to Coopertown Elementary School, where each Mizzou student grabs four bags and delivers them to the school counselor’s office. As they drive away, Osaghae-Nosa wonders if something like this happens in Columbia.

Mizzou Alternative Breaks

After working all morning at Love Markets, or farmers markets, students enjoy a home-cooked meal at Good Food for Good People.

Bringing it home is one of the seven principles of MAB. Throughout the week, the students embody the seven principles, including “Serve; don’t help,” something they better understood after two days of packing bags and distributing food. Those small tasks gave the normal TNKids Nutrition volunteers a week off.

And “Be Gumby,” as in be flexible. Instead of being one more pair of hands setting up the Love Market at the hospital, Robb headed to the activity center, where he participated in laughter yoga with senior women. “That epitomizes the whole idea of Mizzou Alternative Breaks: You go out of your comfort zone, and you realize it’s cool and something you enjoy,” he says.

But of all the principles, “Bring it home” is how Mizzou students change the world. “These trips are not as much what you do but what you take from it,” Robb says.

‘These trips are not as much what you do but what you take from it.’

As a junior, Levinstein went on her first MAB trip and worked at a children’s hospital and an urban farm in New Orleans. Back at Mizzou, she volunteered at Tiger Pantry, a student organization that provides food to any Mizzou students, faculty or staff who need it.

During one of Do’s previous trips, she served at Woodrow Wilson Keeble Memorial Health Care Center, a hospital on the Lake Traverse Indian Reservation in Sisseton, South Dakota, which sparked her interest in the health care systems of indigenous populations. When she returned to campus, she started researching how cultures with different belief systems practice medicine.

After Miller’s week in Nashville, he considered applying to be a site leader on a trip next year. Farah re-evaluated his eating habits and introduced more fruits and vegetables into his diet. Osaghae-Nosa looked into The Food Bank for Central and Northeast Missouri Buddy Pack program. Robb reached out to the Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture to volunteer at their urban farm.

“A lot of times you get stuck in a rut with school. You just go to classes and you forget why you’re going into it,” Levinstein says. “But [Mizzou Alterative Breaks] really reignited a spark in me.”