Suffolk Alternative Spring Break’s first trip to Puerto Rico

Suffolk University’s S.O.U.L.S. Center for Community Engagement sponsored its first Alternative Spring Break (ASB) trip outside the 50 states this year as students traveled to Puerto Rico to do service work. Students had the opportunity to volunteer with the food bank Banco de Alimentos and several Boys and Girls Clubs affiliates in Puerto Rico.

“It has always been at the back of our minds,” Carolina Garcia, the director of S.O.U.L.S., said of planning a trip outside of the continental United States. For years Suffolk students have been serving communities primarily in southern states over spring break, but on Alternative Winter Break trips, Suffolk has taken students to work with Habitat for Humanity in El Salvador.

Erin Bessette, a senior S.O.U.L.S. Campus Partnership Scholar who participated in this past winter’s trip to El Salvador and previously served on two ASB trips in the U.S., was excited for the opportunity to expand her Spanish language skills and see a new culture on the Puerto Rico trip.

“My favorite moment of the trip was when I got to help a student [at a Boys and Girls club] with her homework in English. She knew only a little English and I only know a little Spanish, so it was a nice exchange,” Bessette said. On previous ASB trips, Bessette did advocacy work for LGBT issues in Detroit, Mich. and served as a trip leader on a Habitat for Humanity trip building homes in Georgetown, Del.

While she enjoyed her previous volunteer work in these fields, Bessette found the mix of non-profits she was able to work with in Puerto Rico more comprehensive. “With so many different jobs to do, you really get a sense of how community development works and the wide range of issues Puerto Rico faces,” Bessette said.

“This trip was a great way for students to learn about Puerto Rico and how it fits into the U.S.,” Garcia said, “Puerto Rico is culturally very different from the rest of the U.S. and is a very politically interesting place right now.” Garcia was referring to the question of Puerto Rico’s sovereignty—whether it will become a U.S. state, remain a U.S. territory, or become its own nation—which has been a hot topic lately.

“I asked three different Puerto Ricans about how they felt about becoming a state or becoming independent and I got three different answers,” Bessette said, “All of them were valid but it was interesting as an outsider to hear how they all have different views about what they want or need.”

Emily Brady, a junior S.O.U.L.S Communications and Development Scholar who has also served on two previous ASB trips, found the cultural aspects of the trip to be the most interesting. After serving on two Habitat for Humanity ASB trips, once as a volunteer in Wichita Falls, Texas and then as a trip leader alongside Bessette in Georgetown, Del., Brady especially enjoyed working at the Boys and Girls Clubs in Puerto Rico. “I think kids are the best insight into family life,” she said.

Brady’s hometown, Holyoke, Mass., has a large percentage of Puerto Ricans and she says there is “a big divide between people who are Puerto Rican and people who aren’t.” By serving in the food bank and at the Boys and Girls Clubs, “I brought back a bigger appreciation for their culture and lifestyle,” she said.

Brady was also inspired by one of the Puerto Rican staff members at a Boys and Girls club. “There are people who are willing to give away all their time to for a cause and that are so selfless,” she said, “That had a huge impact on me.”

Garcia said she was “so proud of all the students” who participated in the trip for embracing the culture and being so willing to learn, as many of them did not speak Spanish. “What we did in a few days [at the food bank] would’ve taken the regular staff of only three people months to do,” Garcia said.

“It was so exciting to see people coming in for food and seeing more food on the shelves,” Brady said, “There were so many emotional ups and downs working on the trip, but it was overall so positive.”