It was an interesting mix of things-delayed and instant gratification, involved planning and intense spontaneity, familiar faces and faces that became familiar and faces that I'll probably never see again, long hours of work and leaving with a deep, joyous satisfaction after five days. At its most basic, helping others is an amazing experience that improves the lives of all who are involved.
Illini Hillel at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, a department of JUF's Campus Affairs and Student Engagement, sponsored an Alternative Winter Break volunteer project with a group of 17 students from diverse backgrounds and two staff members. Our group included four non-Jewish students along with Jewish students representing different streams of Judaism. This Break was the first through Hillel that focused on a local service project. Students are so wrapped up in their on-campus university lives, it's important to remember and appreciate the fact that there are many needs so close to home that we ignore. Volunteering in the surrounding cities helps students bridge connections between the university and the local communities, a connection that turned out being a very positive and insightful experience.
Not only were our students diverse, but our work experiences were as well. We went to many places in Champaign-Urbana: a nursery where parents with severe difficulties drop off their children for a bit; a retirement home; a church; a soup kitchen for multiple days; a Habitat for Humanity home-build sight for two days; and a local elementary school to talk with kids and help the school with some projects.
Additionally, we helped with tornado disaster relief in Penfield and Washington, Ill., where the damage was extensive. While a large undertaking, we cleared an entire lot of debris in one day. It was so satisfying to leave seeing a house lot completely transformed. What we did seemed like a drop in a bucket, but it was a powerful drop and I know that with enough determination the drops eventually will fill the bucket.
In addition to our work, we also had speakers come in-our University's Chancellor, the Dean of Social Work, and the Mayor of Champaign. Our group was able to experience dinners with members of the community, too. The main emphasis was about coming together to help local communities, to gain a stronger connection with them, and to have a fun, full week of volunteering.
While some may think that Winter Break is meant to be spent skiing or lying on a beach, this service break was a rewarding and unforgettable experience. From the varying activities came the simple benefits of helping others, having new experiences, learning new things, connecting better with local communities, and creating and fostering friendships in the process.
Illini Hillel will again be participating in an Alternative Break trip in Illinois on March 24 to 27. We plan to continue visiting sites that have been devastated by the tornadoes in towns like Gifford and Washington, Ill. We will also be helping out the local synagogue in Champaign, Sinai Temple, by painting some classrooms. Every morning we will start our day by volunteering at the Daily Bread Soup Kitchen as a way to continue connecting with the local, non-campus community. Lastly, we plan to bring in new speakers from the communities to help inspire us each evening before we take on the new day. We are so excited to get out in the local community again and make a difference. There's always an opportunity to lend a helping hand-take the opportunity. You will gain far more than you give.
Jason Steinberg is a junior in Psychology at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Tori Weinstein is a sophomore in Communications at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.