Run by the David and Wanda Brown Center for Leadership and Service, Florida Alternative Breaks (FAB) trips are opportunities to spend school breaks learning first-hand about important social issues. As an added bonus, attending a FAB trip can count as one of the six enrichment points Honors students need to graduate. The 2018 winter break FAB trip’s social issue was the refugee crisis and took place in Atlanta in partnership with Lutheran Services of Georgia (LSG), a nonprofit that helps newly arrived refugees become economically self-sufficient, socially integrated, and culturally acclimated. And, as the FAB trip participants learned, volunteers at LSG donations so that all refugees in LSG’s program could receive a winter gift, including a warm coat, and at least one other present. Henry “Ty” Simon, 22, said that “one thing that really stood out to me was on Wednesday when we went to visit the refugee families is that they had extensive needs. I knew from wrapping presents that the recipient was a single mother with six kids and she’s here raising her kids on her own, so I assumed that was the sole reason for her involvement in the program. But then she revealed to us that she was diagnosed with cancer and that was shocking to me because she was all around making sure we were comfortable and was worried about us before herself. Her outlook was inspiring.”

Not only did participants work with LSG in sorting and delivering gifts, they also taught an ESOL class to immigrants in a Korean church, and appreciated the diversity in Atlanta, a hub for refugee resettlement, sightseeing in places including Clarkston, Centennial Park, Piedmont Park, and the CDC museum. Emma-Louise Austin-Datta, 22, said she had fun visiting a coffee shop in Clarkston called Refuge Coffee Co., a non-profit coffee shop that donates its profits into the community to help refugees and is also owned and operated by refugees. “I really loved that business model and having a way to give back in just a normal coffee purchase,” remarked Austin-Datta. The trip took six days and began the day after finals week. Not all FAB trips are the same duration—other trips take place over the breaks such as the Martin Luther King weekend or Spring Break—and each trip has a different social issue. FAB participants do have to pay a fee for trips, the cost covering food, travel, and housing, but luckily FAB trips are usually affordable, one reason that many participants chose to go on a FAB trip.

Kha-Uyen “Kat” Bui, 20, stated that “[FAB] was not my first choice. I thought about going abroad to India or Haiti with my church. However, I found out that because of my family’s financial situation I didn’t want to be a burden since they’re paying for my education. So I thought I’d want to do something cheaper and Florida Alternative Breaks is a lot cheaper than going abroad to Haiti or Africa.” Furthermore, the National Gator Parent & Family Council provides a scholarship for Florida Alternative Breaks that covers up to one hundred dollars towards the trip fee. “Getting the scholarship and getting the email telling me I was selected was really huge and I was surprised that I actually got it because I thought that there were probably going to be some other candidates that were going to get it before me. It really meant a lot and made me want to go on the trip a lot more,” said Wadney Julien, 22.

Future FAB participants can expect learning, service, and fun from a FAB trip. “I didn’t know about the refugee crisis before the trip. I learned a ton hearing stories, and meeting the refugees was super powerful, definitely changed my entire perspective and made me want to continue to learn and get involved,” said Madison Herdemian, 22. Shekella Higgins, 19, said that the winter break trip showed her that “the trauma, the experiences, the violence, the war… it did affect [the refugees], but it was like when we were there, they didn’t show that, they just showed happiness the whole time. They were very happy to meet us and welcomed thirteen strangers to their house… they taught us K-pop dances which was very fun, we got to ask them questions and they asked us questions.” FAB trips combine learning facts about a social issue and experiential learning of a social issue so participants can fully understand the issue that is the focus of their trip. This mix creates a memorable experience for all participants involved. A moment that stood out, says Maria Okoye, 20, was when “one of the mothers of a family we visited prayed to us and it was just such an uplifting and spiritual moment, and I personally can’t find the words to describe how I felt in those moments and how accepted I felt as a person.”

FAB participants also reported that the friendships formed on the trips made these experiences even more special. Samuel Cockey, 21, went on his first FAB trip as a first-year student. Now a third-year student, he not only continues to go on FAB trips, but is a site leader for FAB trips. Cockey has now been on four FAB trips and explains “I first did a spring break trip, it was week long, and as a participant I really appreciated the comradery. Meeting thirteen other strangers was intimidating at first, but I found a very open community and I felt like it was a safe space. Because we talk about heavy social issues, but it was great to speak with my peers and got to get my thoughts out in the open. I enjoyed it so much that I wanted to be a site leader so then I went on another trip the following trip and then I led a trip.” Each FAB trip has three site leaders who planned the trip and ensure that everything goes smoothly. According to first time site leader Lauren Blakeley, 20, site leaders have to consider budget, find a housing site, coordinate with the volunteer organization the FAB trip works with, and the safety of the participants. “The hardest part wasn’t even managing the participants during service or once we get home, just in the morning, making sure everyone has eaten breakfast and had their lunch packed, ready to go once we’re ready to leave,” said Blakeley.

Site leaders also have to consider group dynamics, making sure the trip is a welcoming space, and “worry about getting to places on time and making a good example for our community partners” said Reanne Mathai, 20. For their efforts, site leaders do not pay for the trip, but they take a course designed to teach them about the trip’s social issues and plan the trip.Since FAB trips are made up of small groups of students, personalized arrangements can be made for students. “I told them a while ago about my dietary restrictions and accommodations were made. They did a good job of providing keto-friendly foods. I wasn’t eating what I normally eat but sacrifices were made on both ends and it worked out completely fine. I’m very thankful that they were able to do that for me,” said Herdemian. “I was concerned about bathroom situations and sleeping arrangements because it wasn’t clear, but I knew it wouldn’t really matter that much to me in the grand scheme of things. But it all panned out and I’m satisfied how my concerns went. Getting to have direct contact with refugees superseded any trivial concerns,” said Okoye. But according to most participants, the most important thing before going on a FAB trip is to keep an open mind and enjoy the experience.