Karen Lewis

I was drawn to Alternative Breaks by its mission of doing service for others while experiencing new places.   The idea that I could work with National Park employees on removing invasive plants and enjoy the vistas of Utah or, help with an environmental school’s mission and swim with the fishes in the Pacific Ocean was a definite selling point for me!  It allowed me to try out different aspects of my major in Environmental Studies and gain personal insights that effectually have been shaping my future ever since.  I say this because I consider my most influential break to be one I almost didn’t take, supporting the Lower Nine Organization in New Orleans.

The Lower Nine Organization focuses on rebuilding the poorest section of New Orleans after it was hit by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.  These individuals took the brunt of the storm damage when levees holding the Mississippi River banks broke.  More than 5 years later, this neighborhood still sat in limbo, with FEMA marked flood damaged homes still present on unrepaired streets.  Many vital community tying services like churches, grocery, parks and schools were missing as well as the people who would fill them.   Lower Nine Organization helps homeowners by organizing and supervising volunteers like us to perform the labor, leaving them to fund only the material cost needed to rebuild their homes.  

I visited this area with an eclectic group of individuals that I hardly knew because I was an alternate driver.  Unlike my first experience with the Zion group, I had not met and worked with my group during the class component.  That aspect of the Alternative Break experience is often underrated but so important to building a good rapport with a group of people that you will be eating, sleeping and working with almost exclusively for a week.  Being able to use the class component to earn the Certificate in Service Learning is great too!

Despite the fact that I didn’t see the connection between this service trip and my major, it made me feel good that the Core staff offered me the opportunity to serve.  Not having built connections within the group, it felt a little awkward at first but when you drive 12+ hours with people, you can’t help but get to know them!  Once we arrived and began to disassemble and reassemble homes, I began to recognize why I was called to serve there, with that group of volunteers, at that time.

Since serving at this site I have become interested in the community building aspects of my major especially as they involve economic and food security.  Helping others understand and recognize how their relationships with their environment are a vital piece of this and what I am looking for in future work.  Following graduation I have been serving an AmeriCorps contract with Clinton State Park, volunteering with Hidden Valley nature camp and Engineers Without Borders, and was recently asked to join the City of Lawrence Sustainability Advisory Board.  

I participated in three Alternative Breaks during my undergraduate years at KU: Zion National Park in Utah in the spring, Lower Nine Organization in New Orleans in the winter and Catalina Island of the coast of Santa Barbara in the summer.  Each one of these trips left me with a unique experience that cannot be replicated and friendships that will not be forgotten.   This organization performs a valuable service for the education of students at KU and I hope many more will take advantage of it in the future.