The following post, written by Josh Fishman, was originally published on the Michigan State University Hillel’s blog about MSU’s recent City Year / Hillel Alternative Spring Break (ASB) trip in Los Angeles.

Wow. After going into the week with curbed expectations, having never participated in an Alternative Break trip as a staff member or a student, I cannot begin to explain what an eye-opening experience our trip to L.A. was. The week was filled with motivational speakers, countless group discussions (probably too many if you were to ask a student), hours of service work in the scorching L.A. sun, and of course, endless amounts of fun.

Our first speaker, Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, talked about the trip, and asked whether students thought it was a service trip or a learning trip. A majority of students were quick to shout that it was strictly a service trip, but I’m sure if you asked those same students today, their answers would be different.

What is the goal of 4 days of service work in a new environment? Is the goal to improve the schools and leave a lasting impression on the students we’ve helped? Are we doing more harm then help in becoming role models for young kids and then disappearing on a whim? Is it more beneficial to donate the trips cost to LA schools, which would allow them to afford many more tangible supplies than we created in a weeks worth of time?

These are all questions that we struggled with and discussed throughout the week. Questions that left us overwhelmed, exhausted, inspired, open-minded, and FIRED UP (as the City Year members would say). While I can’t speak for anyone but myself, I’d say that after a week of service, it is clear that the service City Year puts together has little to do with the direct effect our work has on the LA community or its students, but to the participants themselves.

The afterschool program we participated in at Palms Elementary, stationed in West LA doesn’t seem like such an impoverish neighborhood. But when you hear from their principal, who tells you that 84% of their students families live below the poverty line, and 99% of their students live in apartments, some with more than 6 siblings, it brings everything into perspective. The program we worked with, funded by the city of LA for families that can’t afford after-school care, employs ONE WOMAN for 60 STUDENTS. 60!

First grade Brandon, whom I helped with his math homework, and couldn’t quite grasp the idea of counting by ones, is an anomaly for inner city students across the country. He told me “the police took away his Mom’s car,” and has to ride 2 buses to pick him up from school. With over-sized classrooms, 3 hours round-trip travel time to and from school, and no after school homework help, how is Brandon supposed to learn?

For kids like Brandon who may never receive one-on-one attention, the effects of our time at Palms Elementary may be insurmountable. As we stood outside during a fire drill on Friday afternoon, Principal Smith had students come to the microphone and explain which of our projects they were most thankful for. As the kids showed their gratitude one by one, it became more difficult for many that spent their Spring Break doing service to refrain from tears (maybe myself included). It is not only the students that we worked to make a difference for last week, but the idea that their are kids like this no matter what community you live in.

The message that I took from this week is that their is hope, but not without us. A week of service cannot end when we step onto the plane to Detroit, because there are thousands of Brandon’s across the country, in every community, of every state. After spending the week with an amazing group of motivating, thought-provoking individuals, privileged with the power to make a difference in the world,it left me with one closing thought that a teacher from an LA Charter School told us earlier in the week, “The happiest people are doing the things they love the most.”

Follow what you are most passionate about, whether it’s health-care, human rights, or education, and we can all make a difference. So, what are you going to do next?


Read more about MSU’s alternative spring break here, and check out a slideshow of their experience below: