Thursday, June 20, 2024

‘No complaint’: 8 volunteer for transformative spring break

Left to right: Jayden Neptune, Kristyn Penera and Rohan Nasare paint the walls in the Shack Neighborhood House, a community center in Morgantown, West Virginia. The group of students lived and did volunteer work at the Shack throughout spring break.

 

By Aleksandra Sidorova

Eight SUNY Plattsburgh students found community and purpose while away on a spring break unlike any they’ve had before.

Annabella Arriola and Jenna Garcia of Theta Phi Alpha, Rohan Nasare and Robert Snekser of Delta Sigma Phi, Jayden Neptune of Theta Gamma, Kristyn Penera and Stella Saarinen of Theta Alpha Lambda and Sophia Sabatini of Alpha Epsilon Phi stayed and worked at the Shack Neighborhood, a community center in Morgantown, West Virginia. A one-way trip, including stops, took them about 12 hours.

“It’s a place where we could all see we were making an impact,” Sabatini, one of the group leaders, said. “The people on the trip were just so dedicated to making a difference. These individuals who knew nothing about the community worked tirelessly day and night with no complaint.”

This year was the 17th time SUNY Plattsburgh Greek life members traveled to the Shack, and the first time since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. They left Plattsburgh Saturday, March 16 and returned Friday, March 22.

 

Provided by Sophia Sabatini
Sophia Sabatini takes a selfie with (left to right) Penera, Stella Saarinen, Neptune, Jenna Garcia, Annabella Arriola, Robert Snekser and Nasare outside their van in a SUNY Plattsburgh parking lot.

THE SHACK

The first thing the group did was help the Shack with a rummage sale. When they noticed the place was empty, they made signs and stood by the road, attracting visitors.

The students pushed themselves to their full potential in remodeling the Shack to fit a 90s arcade theme. They made gnome toys to be distributed in community homes to promote the Shack’s programs. They checked paint cans, reorganized books, built shelves and moved furniture. They painted murals — Pacman, Pokemon, Mario, a huge octopus and Dory from “Finding Nemo” on a door. 

What the group didn’t do was catch up on sleep. The students woke up early and left the Shack by 6:30 a.m. to make it to its school-based child care programs. The programs are also offered after school, so the group spent time with the children in the afternoon, too. 

“Those were the most enjoyable moments for me, at least,” Nasare said. “I met a lot of kids, played a lot of soccer, football, basketball, running tag, freeze tag — whatever they had in mind.”

Arriola, who has several permanent tattoos, invited children to draw temporary tattoos on her with marker. Arriola, a junior psychology major, said she loves working with children — something she hopes to do professionally as a mental health counselor.

Nasare said the hosts at the Shack were willing to get supplies and groceries for the group when it needed them and treated the group to Olive Garden for its hard work. The trip expanded students’ view of community service — a pillar in Greek life.

“This trip showed us that community service doesn’t just mean going to a random park and raking leaves,” Nasare said. “This is us providing to that community, and they provided a lot back to us.”

 

THE GROUP

Besides connecting with the community, the students connected with each other. They cooked family-style dinners together. They slept at the Shack, either in cots or sleeping bags that they brought with them.

“It was pretty much us sleeping wherever we found a place,” Nasare said.

They’d known each other by name, but now they feel a special connection.

“The bonds were so authentic, so unmatched,” Sabatini said.

Since the beginning of the Alternative Spring Break trips, the groups have kept a journal where they wrote reflections and shared their experiences, and this year’s group added to it. The Fraternity & Sorority Life office also frames group photos with students’ notes on the margins, labeling the year.

“The eight of us being able to experience this all together, I think that was also one of my favorite things that I’m never going to really forget,” Arriola said. “It was nice having that sense of connection and I would say family, in a sense.”

 

THE SELVES

The group made a collective promise to stay off their phones, especially when interacting with children during the before- and after-school programs.

“I barely spoke to my best friend for the entire week,” Arriola said. “It was so nice to not be on my phone the entire week — it felt so good because I didn’t have to worry about anything like what was going on in the social media world. It was just being present and in the moment with everybody and all the kids and all the staff.”

Despite all the work they did, day and night, it still felt like a break.

“We were just playing music, having fun and working all together. Everyone just wanted to make sure that we left the place better than we found,” Nasare said. “At least for me, it didn’t feel like work.”

Arriola said she would have otherwise spent the break at home, working.

“I feel like I don’t do anything during spring break — I just sit in my own self-pity and I wallow,” Arriola said. “It was definitely a change of pace not doing that for this semester and going to West Virginia. … Even though it’s not, oh, I went to another country and got to be by the beach and stuff like that, I still went away and I still got to do rewarding and fun things — that’s my vision of a break, no matter where I was. I think this is my favorite spring break ever. It felt so good giving back to a community I can’t describe it. It just felt so good giving back.”

 

AGAIN?

The Alternative Spring Break stay was cut short by a day, when they started receiving alerts about an intense snowstorm hitting the Northeast that weekend. They arrived at that decision Thursday evening, meaning they never got to say goodbye to the children whom they had promised one more day together.

“Those were really sweet kids, and the fact that we couldn’t say goodbye to them on Friday, it kind of got to everyone in a way,” Nasare said. “Everyone felt so sad because we kind of made a connection with them in the four days, seeing them in the morning and afternoon, playing with them for four to five hours a day. My God, my legs were so tired.”

Cutting their trip short motivated the group to accomplish as much as they could in the time they had left. Nasare, who anticipated dedicating the Friday to finishing his Tetris-themed wall mural, pulled an all-nighter instead, finishing about 15 minutes before the group left

for Plattsburgh.

“Once I started that wall, I outlined it perfectly and everything, so I was like, now that I’ve done this, I can’t leave it undone,” Nasare said.

Some of the participants already want to go back. 

“I hope I can go back and see (the children) again, apologize for not saying bye,” Nasare said.

 

SERVICE FOR EVERYONE

Alternative Spring Break is available only to members of Greek life organizations. There is an application process, with a maximum of 11 students that the van can accommodate. Each selected participant puts $100 toward the trip and engages in fundraising by selling candy — usually during winter break, Sabatini said.

Fraternity & Sorority Life hopes to see more students interested in joining Greek life organizations, but volunteering opportunities are available through Project Help, based in the Fraternity & Sorority Life office and available locally to all students.

“When I got to college, I remember I always told myself I was never going to be a part of Greek life,” Arriola said. “Being a part of Greek life has definitely given me a lot of opportunities, at least in community service. It’s very rewarding being a part of Greek life and having community service as a structure, part of us.”

 

Provided by Sophia Sabatini
The Alternative Spring Break group poses for a customary photo in the Shack’s gym. The photo will be framed and displayed in the Fraternity & Sorority Life office alongside photos from past trips.
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