March has never been my favorite month. Everything is brown, it’s windy, sometimes we get lots of snow, and all the fun holidays are over. It’s like this 30-day holding period before the real signs of spring and renewal start to show up. I’ve always just muddled through it with a grim determination to survive until the color comes back and the wind goes away. Then, I started working for Harvest Farm as their Northern Colorado Volunteer Coordinator and everything changed. Now, March is one of my favorite months of the year. Why? College students. Wonderful, inquisitive, hard-working, kind, amazing college students!
Harvest Farm offers Alternative Spring Break opportunities for dozens of students from universities all over the U.S. Instead of hitting the beaches, these students volunteer their time to live on the Farm for a week during their Spring Break. And they’re awesome! Every year I can’t wait to meet them. This year we got to host Vanderbilt University, Xavier University, Iowa State University, and University of California San Diego.
The student groups bring energy and fun to the Farm. They come with open minds and hearts, ready to learn and interact. They ask questions. Their perspectives are challenged. Stereotypes are shattered. Some of them even change career paths. Why is that? What is it about the Farm that is life-changing for these young adults? I could say it’s our unique program or the actual volunteer work they’re doing, but as great as our program may be, that’s not what makes people re-asses their lives. Honestly, it’s the men in our New Life Program that changes things.
We have 72 men living with us on the Farm who are working to turn their lives around in our long-term New Life Program. These men come from all walks of life, some come to us directly out of prison, and others have experienced chronic homelessness and addiction. Students have open dialogue with these men and talk to someone they might otherwise never speak with. It’s about sharing stories and learning from one another. At the end of their week, I debrief with each group of students. Without fail, they tell me how our New Life Program participants have changed their lives.
One student volunteer said, “I had expected that we would be helping the men and learning more about addiction and homelessness, and experiencing a bit of how it feels to be in that position. We helped them, yes, but they helped us as well. The Farm was a place which helped everyone – even us – to discover [more] about ourselves.”
Alternative Spring Break groups bring something to our participants as well. These groups give our men the chance to share their personal journey with people who want to learn from and understand them. Getting to interact with people when they’re sober, in an environment that feels safe allows something cool to happen. Suddenly, our men have purpose. They’re teaching people how to do things like milk cows, build fences, and start a garden. They’re gaining confidence and starting to feel that they have value and something to offer.
Another student said it well: “One day at lunch, Tim asked me what my favorite part of this trip had been. My answer was, ‘getting to know you all!’ He looked a bit shocked or confused with my answer. So I asked him, ‘Were you expecting me to say something else?’ He responded, ‘I thought you were going to say the animals…’ I could tell by his facial expression he was pleasantly surprised with my answer. I was telling Tim the honest truth; my favorite part of my time at Harvest Farm was simply getting to know the guys. Their laughter and silliness was contagious. Their stories and life experiences were captivating. Their determination for sobriety was inspiring.”
And something must have clicked for Tim. I can safely say he felt special. I wonder when the last time was that he felt special. I wonder when the last time was that someone considered it fun getting to know him. I wonder how many of our men believe, when they first get to Harvest Farm, that they are not worthy of being known and that they have nothing to offer anyone. When, in reality, they offer so much.
Simply put, Alternative Spring Break is about so much more than students volunteering. It’s about connection, and seeing the beauty in the brokenness that we all carry inside us. It’s about understanding, accomplishment, laughter, learning, and hope. We get some work done, sure, but the real “work” is in the lives of the students and the men as they interact with and impact each other.
One of our New Life Program graduates said “We so desperately seek to redeem ourselves that our souls spontaneously connect.” How beautiful is that? Yes, it’s about souls connecting and the healing that comes from that. March is now a really great month for me. I will continue to welcome fresh faces, open minds and willing hearts and I will be blessed by their time with us.
To learn more about our 2017 Alternative Spring Break program at Harvest Farm, contact me, Heather Pulley, at firstname.lastname@example.org.