Volunteer Profile: University of Missouri Alternative Spring Break

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Nearly 30 years ago, the University of Missouri’s alternative spring break (Mizzou ASB) programs began, sending students around the nation to volunteer and give back. Over the last three decades, the program has grown to become the largest in the country, offering over 7 service trips, including three groups who volunteer in New Orleans each year. One of those groups; led by Erin Panhorst, a junior from Hanover Park, IL, majoring in journalism and Spanish, and Summer Rash, a senior from Bolivar, MO, majoring in interpersonal communication and social justice; volunteers with NOAHH.

Erin and Summer have both volunteered with Habitat for Humanity affiliates in the past, and Erin has been on mission trips to New Orleans for many years. Together, they picked the team of volunteers that would make up this year’s ASB group.

“The fun part about Mizzou ASB is that it’s random,” said Erin. “We don’t know who we’re picking. So at the beginning of the week, we didn’t know each other, and now w’ere good friends.”

Students at Mizzou apply via an anonymous application that allows the student leaders to select based not on a name or a face but other qualities. It also helps keep the focus of the trip on service.

“It’s a community effort–more like a nationwide effort, considering there are people from New York here,” Erin said. “We’re from Missouri, and we’re in New Orleans. It’s fun for everyone to get together and do something good.”

They worked on America Street, where half a dozen Habitat homes are under construction, and many more are already built. Seeing the homes at different stages of construction and working in a neighborhood full of Habitat homes helped them understand the bigger picture of the fight for affordable housing in New Orleans.

“Especially here,” Summer said. “It’s cool that there are so many different Habitat houses so close together. You really get that community feeling. Everybody’s working for the greater good. Everybody’s working for a specific cause. You can see that in all the past volunteer work and all the future volunteers who will come to finish what we left.

“There’s so many different people. Obviously, one group of volunteers doesn’t put a whole house together, so it’s cool to be able to build on what other people have done and then see what come to fruition. It’s interesting to know that you are not the only person who’s been doing all of this work.”

As well as working with other volunteers and meeting new people, the students work alongside partner families, which makes a significant impact. During their first few days on the trip, they worked with Habitat homeowners from Ray Street, a man and his grandson, who have already moved into their home.

“We know how much it helped them out, so we can transfer that,” Summer said. “We know how the other people who move into these houses are going to feel. Meeting the homeowners gives you the inspiration to go the extra mile. Do that last little bit to your best extent.”

Erin particularly noticed the pace of the progress. Her previous trips to New Orleans after the storm gave her some perspective on how far the city had come and how far it needed to go.

“I didn’t realize how slow it would be,” Erin said. “It surprised me. It’s not going to happen overnight or even in a year. It’s going to take a long time and a little help from everyone.”

“You see that too when we’re putting in this effort into the floor on the house,” Summer said. “Our group will finish the flooring, but that’s 12 people working for one week. That’s a lot of work. It’s still a slow process. It makes you realize that.”

On Ray Street, they were putting the finishing touches on a new home, while on America Street, they were working on the aforementioned flooring.

“I like hammering the nails and using the power tools,” Summer said. “That’s not the same thing that our participants normally get to do. They learn a new skill as well as get to help out the community.”

“I think it’s cool to do the finishing touches,” Erin said. “The mailbox was so sentimental. It’s officially a house. We put the numbers up on the railing, which I think was more sentimental.”

“Home to me specifically is a place you can always come back to, where you put down your roots, a place where you know that you can build a life,” said Summer. “I think that’s why Habitat is so great, because it gives people the opportunity to not only have a home to come back to, but to be able to build a life from that.”

Overall, the volunteer experience is its own reward.

“You don’t realize how much fun it is giving back and how rewarding it is until you actually do it,” said Summer. “Because it’s easy to say that you want to spend your time doing things that you want to do, but whenever you’re going out and you’re helping other people, it’s so much better. I think you realize that once you get started doing it. You want to keep that feeling coming, and you keep doing it.

“It’s a transformative experience whenever you look at something that hasn’t been built at all, and then you put your work into it, and you leave knowing you made a difference.”