Alternative Spring Break: A Week That Lasts A Lifetime

United Way NCA hosted four Alternative Spring Break (ASB) programs in March, bringing together 132 college-age students from the Washington metropolitan area and across the country, as well as China, Italy, Japan, and Puerto Rico. Volunteers represented more than 70 colleges and universities.

Each ASB program lasted for one week and provided the students with the opportunity to commit themselves to service in the areas of education, youth development, children’s nutrition and homelessness prevention. ASB organizers also felt a critical part of the experience was providing daily activities that allowed volunteers to understand better the underlying and systemic issues that prevent youth and adults from moving out of poverty.


Paige Sparkman, a student at Central Michigan University, shares her most inspirational ASB moments.

While each ASB program looked slightly different depending on the number of participating students there was a similar flow to each week-long experience. Participants were housed at the Boys and Girls Club’s Richard England Clubhouse #14 on Benning Road. On their first night they engaged in team building exercises, such as a scavenger hunt.

Throughout the week, volunteers helped out with cleaning and organizational projects at the host site, they served as tutors and mentors to elementary students and they assisted with afterschool programs.

ASB volunteers also had the chance to visit Capitol Hill where they spoke with policy experts including Abigail Smith, Deputy Mayor of Education, Washington DC, and speakers from American University, American Youth Policy Forum, George Washington University, Jobs with Justice, the U.S. Department of Education, United States Student Association and United Way Worldwide. They were also treated to a tour of the U.S. Capitol.


Tiffani Roelle, a student at Chadron State College, has participated in two United Way ASB experiences, and learned something special from both programs.

One of the most unique activities of the week was the Walk A Mile simulation. Students were assigned characters they had to embody and then were dealt circumstances beyond their control. They had to pay bills, feed their families, and search for work or attend school, as they navigated tricky twists and turns.

“It was interesting to see people connect the dots and understand what some of the challenges are that people face every day,” said Mary Jo Bean, Major Gifts Manager, United Way NCA, who was one of the ASB organizers.

ASBers were attracted to the program for a variety of different reasons ranging from wanting to give back, to seeking adventure in a new city, to wanting to gain new experiences that would prepare them for a career. In these confessional-style videos, volunteers shared their stories.

In total, ASB volunteers created $114,240 in impact in our local community, and completed 5,280 service hours at Boys and Girls Club’s Richard England Clubhouse #14 on Benning Road and the Dunbar Alexandria Olympic Branch. They also served at Reading Partners at Shaw City Center Public Charter School, Crossway Community, Food & Friends and Cesar Chavez Public Policy Charter School, and helped out with United Way NCA’s Shoebox Project.

ASB would not have been possible without support from 3M, Baltimore Gas and Electric, BizGravity, Patricia M. C. Brown, Chipotle (Ballston), Chipotle (14th St.), Coca-Cola, Enterprise, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, MediaBarn, MHG Restaurant Group, Moe’s, Naked Pizza, and Taylor Gourmet and our community partners (including those listed previously) such as Benjamin Franklin High School, Maryland Food Bank, Movable Feast, Public Defenders Service, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Elementary School, SWIFT, United Way Central Maryland, United Way Worldwide and Young and Powerful.