Alternative Spring Break Sends Students to Areas in Need

People collect garbage from a pile of debris while holding trashbags

Students participating in the Bear Boots on the Ground trip collect debris on the banks of the Mississippi River. Photo contributed by Charlotte Strickland.

Spring break marks the halfway point of the semester, a period when СӰԺ students take advantage of the time off to recharge and prepare for the rush toward finals. Some may travel to tropical destinations or mountain lodges, visit family and friends or simply catch up on sleep at home. But the students, staff and faculty part of the Bear Boots on the Ground seek to give back during this time.

Bear Boots on the Ground is a service program that dispatches civic-minded Bears across the country to volunteer with non-profit organizations. Commonly called an alternative spring break, this year brought 10 volunteers to Memphis, Tennessee, for a cleanup along the Mississippi River. Along with students from other universities, volunteers gathered over 10 tons of garbage — mostly plastic — and prevented it from flowing into the Gulf of Mexico. For students, the trip meant a chance to give back and be part of a cause bigger than themselves.

“I wanted to spend my spring break doing something that I truly believed was important,” said Elias Rushing, a freshman biology major. “Trips are funner anyway when there is a greater purpose behind it.”

Alora Lowry, a freshman environmental science major, got involved to complement her major and explore more ways she could exercise her degree outside of the classroom. After not having any plans for spring break, she applied for the Bear Boots on the Ground trip.

“I’m interested in water conservation and sustainable practices,” Lowry said. “Our partner organization works to clean up invasive and destructive materials that enter our environment, and I wanted to see how they did their work.”

While one of the main goals of Bear Boots on the Ground is to give students a productive alternative to a spring break vacation, it is also founded on serving communities in need, especially areas recovering from natural disasters.

“Even before the program had a name or a structure, it started in 2006 when staff, religious student organizations and international students organized to clean up New Orleans a year after Hurricane Katrina hit the city,” said Charlotte Strickland, director of professional development and training and a longtime volunteer in the program.

Since that first trip, СӰԺ students and employees have traveled across the country and committed thousands of volunteer hours to assist communities recovering from tornados, hurricanes and other devastating flooding events. Some are closer to home like aiding Mayflower, Arkansas, after a series of tornadoes struck in 2014. Other trips include helping cleanup after Hurricane Harvey damaged swaths of Houston, Texas, in 2017.

In Memphis, this year’s group of eight students and two employees partnered with Living Lands and Waters, a nonprofit organization aimed at cleaning waterways and supporting conservation efforts. Riding on a barge, students collected trash on the banks of the Mississippi River and the adjacent McKellar Lake over three days. To the students, the experience bolstered the problem of trash in waterways.

“The amount of styrofoam in the river shocked me,” Lowry said. “Its inclination to break apart into individual beads makes it so hard to remove from the area. Ultimately, my understanding of how bad single-use plastics are was reinforced. From now on, I’m going to seriously work towards limiting my plastic usage and encourage others to do the same. What I saw on the Mississippi River is not natural, and it is not okay.”

Every year, at least 14 million tons of plastic enter the ocean, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Today, plastic makes up 80 percent of all marine debris, leaving marine life vulnerable to harmful substances.

To Jake Bridgers, a junior geography major, seeing the amount of debris in even one waterway encouraged him to be more active.

“I want to educate my friends and classmates about the possibility of having an experience like Bear Boots on the Ground but also how important it is to be proactive, rather than reactive when it comes to pollution,” he said.

Students also saw the trip as an opportunity to meet their peers, as they got to meet other students connected to the desire to give back. Along with volunteer work, students also had the chance to explore Memphis and enjoyed an outing at the Memphis Zoo.

“Participating in this Alternative Spring Break has not only been educational and fun but it’s been inspiring and thought-provoking,” Lowry said. “I’m so grateful that I could participate in this trip.”