Taking a break to help others

Alternative Winter Break Illini Hillel image
Illini Hillel Students and staff cleaning tornado debris in Gifford, IL.

After a long and stressful semester, taking as long a break as possible seems like the best possible option, right? It's not. I, along with 18 other students and two staff members of Illini Hillel at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, decided to come together a week before the end of our Winter Break to volunteer and use our time to help others. The Alternative Winter Break (AWB), as it's called, is still in full swing, but I have already decided that taking this opportunity to help others has been a much better use of my time than taking that time solely for myself.

Others on the trip feel the same way. This seems a little counterintuitive, as I'd just had a rough semester and I figured that I deserved to take time just for myself, not having to worry about classes and the coming and going stresses of college life. While caring for oneself is certainly important, I feel with renewed vigor that using my time to help others, at least for a significant portion of a given day, is ultimately better for both others and myself than taking most of that time just for myself.

AWB projects often go out to other states or even other countries to volunteer, but for this AWB we decided to volunteer locally, in the towns containing our university, along with areas in Illinois affected by tornadoes. Some of the support for a local trip comes from the idea that though there are problems, many severe, all throughout the world there are so many people who could benefit in our own communities and shouldn't be ignored. Additionally, we wanted to step outside of the college campus that consumes so much of our time and attention in order to make connections with some amazing gems in the surrounding community that are normally hidden only because we don't pay attention to them.

So far we have volunteered at five different organizations in Urbana-Champaign: a nursery for infants, toddlers, and small children whose parents are facing significant difficulties; a retirement home; a church; a soup kitchen; and an organization that builds homes for those in need. We have also performed both random and planned acts of kindness for ordinary people, people who we had never met before and didn't need to meet before. Outside of Urbana-Champaign, we helped organize and clean debris for a woman whose houses and barn were damaged by a tornado.

Still planned is helping the relief effort in a town devastated by another tornado, as well as volunteering at a local elementary school, and more random/planned acts of kindness. But besides the actual work being done, it's been amazing having such uplifting social interactions throughout the week, with both members of the community that I'd never met before as well as the absolutely amazing people on the trip with me.

It all really comes down to the people in the end; I’ve had a positive impact on people's lives and positive experiences with my peers, both of which bring me a very certain joy and happiness. It's also a feeling of really being productive with my time, because deep down being productive to me means enjoying my life and also improving the lives of others. If I can do both simultaneously, that to me is the best way to live. And if cutting my winter break short means living the best way possible, I'm willing to do that.

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