Wellesley Students Volunteer on Service Projects in Kissimee, Fla. and Lake Mead

January 30, 2015
students at the Lake Mead National Recreation Area

Can Wellesley students make a big impact in just seven days?

For the 24 participants who took part in one of two Center for Work and Service (CWS) week-long Alternative Breaks recently, the answer is a resounding yes. Participants assisted organizations in Kissimmee, Fla., and Boulder City, Nev., by meeting both basic and complex needs.

In Kissimmee, that meant clearing pastures, sorting soap, and dancing with children during a Winter Wonderland parade. It also meant utilizing knowledge gained inside and outside the classroom at Wellesley to support the life-changing work done by three local organizations – Give Kids the World, Clean the World, and Heavenly Hooves – for the local community.

Sometimes, the basic and complex work happened simultaneously, as with activities at Give Kids the World, a nonprofit resort that fulfills the wishes of children with life-threatening illnesses by providing a fun, cost-free visit to the Central Florida attractions. More than 134,000 children and their families have been helped by Give Kids the World, which makes dreams come true and provides much-needed laughter, serenity, and emotional support.

The team understood the dual nature of their work. Of the twelve participants, ten are pre-med. The group led families through a life-sized game of Candy Land, painted the nails of little princesses, danced with the children to “Let It Go,” and served meals to the families, among other things. “Through those activities, we created a magical space for the children and families,” says Elizabeth O’Neill ‘16, one of the group’s two site leaders. “These children, who are frequently labeled, tested, and treated in a medical setting, were instead loved, respected, and simply ‘allowed’ to be kids rather than patients. Our service enabled the families to focus on social and emotional health.”

At Clean the World, the group’s efforts were simpler but no less profound. The students sorted 5,000 bars of soap and 14,000 bottles of hotel/sample-sized products to be sent in hygiene kits to people in the U.S. and abroad who don’t have access to basic health necessities like soap. Every year, Clean the World saves millions of lives by partnering with more than 1,500 hotels and resorts across North America to collect partially used bars of soap and bottled amenities. These goods are sanitized and recycled in an environmentally and hygienically safe manner, and then distributed to children and families who are at high risk of death from acute respiratory infection (pneumonia) and diarrheal diseases (cholera), the top two killers of children worldwide.

The Kissimmee team also provided necessary capacity-building service by cleaning pastures and organizing storage spaces at Heavenly Hooves, an equine-assisted therapy program that has served more than 20,000 riders with physical or mental disabilities. Heavenly Hooves utilizes 15 horses and 200 community volunteer to help riders with cerebral palsy, autism, Down syndrome, traumatic brain injury, post traumatic stress, and other challenges develop self-confidence, become part of a community, and build relational skills.

“Our service enabled the regular volunteers and employees of the therapy program to completely devote their time and energy to the riders,” says Elizabeth. “We saw first-hand how important social/emotional health is for people who have been labeled as disabled (often interpreted to mean un-able, or incapable).”

As the group’s week-long service came to an end, they began to reflect on what they had given, and what they in turn had received. “These future neurologists, medical researchers, pediatricians, and surgeons all remarked that their understandings of health had changed,” says Elizabeth. “Our experiences at Give Kids the World), Clean the World, and Heavenly Hooves had exposed all of us to the different facets of health – emotional, social, spiritual, and physical. We also learned that often, holistic alternatives to biomedical healthcare are just as viable.”

Divya Satishchandra ’17, the other site leader, concurs with that observation and adds that the students’ backgrounds enabled them to assist the nonprofits in unique and meaningful ways, and to draw important lessons from their Wintersession experience. “The group was a diverse mix of first years, sophomores, juniors and seniors, and each participant brought her own service, child-related, or health experiences to the group,” Divya says. “This diversity made for stimulating discussions during our daily reflections, which allowed us to dissect important issues of holistic health care. In addition, the group was exposed to alternative ways of pursuing health care without being pre-medicine, and we all returned empowered with this new knowledge.”

The second group of Alternative Break participants flew to Nevada for their work with the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, a unit of the National Park Service (NPS) whose mission is to protect and preserve the national parks for future generations.

Lake Mead serves a diverse range of interests, offering year-round recreational opportunities for boating, fishing, hiking, photography, picnicking, and sightseeing. The area is also important ecologically, since it is home to thousands of desert plants and animals that have adapted to live in conditions where rain is scarce and temperatures can soar. 

When the team started working with the Lake Mead National Recreation Area and some of its associates (such as Friends of Nevada Wilderness and the Bureau of Land Management), the students assumed that they would only have to focus on the lake’s most obvious challenge: the rapidly falling water level.

The group did physical labor to help combat the problem, including two full days of beach clean up, one day constructing a barrier to stop vehicles from driving on protected land, nursery maintenance, and a project preparing seeds for the upcoming growth season.

Yet as the students quickly realized, Lake Mead faces a multitude of challenges, such as invasive species, the negative impact of visitors’ recreation, and a lack of urgency among many of the locals.

“In our interactions with the various people in the community, we were shocked to find that most people were either unaware of or unconcerned with their local environmental issues,” says site leader Lucky Bommireddy ’17. “The group discussed this at length during our reflections, and went even further to discuss and question the way in which the environmental issues we were learning so much about also affected global and local communities, socially, economically, and politically.” 

The team met their immediate goal of building the capacity of the community partners, to make them more effective. Yet as the students headed home, they realized that one week of effort would not solve the problem. They needed to take a longer, wider view, and bring their concerns back to Wellesley. “One of the most important questions that we asked, and that we will surely continue to ask is, “What can we, as Wellesley students, graduates, etc., do about this?” That’s the question that allows us to take everything we’ve experienced and learned during this week of service and bring it back with us to the Wellesley campus and wherever else we go, to use it to maintain and sustain the world that we live in.”