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EIU 360

An Unexpected Feeling

More than 60 students spend Spring Break giving back.

As other students packed up their suitcases, ready to leave campus to enjoy some home cooking or the warm sand of numerous Spring Break destinations, Tony Peak and Kassondra Hemmen had something else in mind.

These Eastern Illinois University students decided to take a pause — an opportunity to give back to those less fortunate — by traveling to McKee, Ky., to build a roof for a needy family with the Christian Appalachian Project, an organization committed to serving those in need within Appalachia.

The students were not alone in their decision to spend their Spring Break giving back to others.

More than 60 EIU students participated in nine separate mission trips across the country called Alternative Spring Break, organized by the EIU Newman Catholic Center. The trips have been a staple of EIU’s community since 1993, giving students a positive alternative for their week off.

‘Good Kids’

Along with eight other college students from across the country, Peak and Hemmen fixed a roof for a family in need. “I didn’t know what I was in for until I got there,” said Hemmen, a senior communication disorders and sciences major.

Since the family needed its roof to be shingled, the group spent the week pulling off the damaged shingles and nailing new ones on — a new experience for both Peak and Hemmen.

“I honestly was scared to go up on the roof the first day,” said Peak, a senior communication studies major. Hemmen agreed. “It was terrifying to get up on the roof,” she said. Yet, as the day progressed, the pair grew accustomed to the work and even received help from the owner.

The owner, who worked a night shift till 2 a.m., would still wake up to make the group breakfast at 6 a.m., and then help on the roof throughout the day, she said.

Both students described the family, a husband and wife, as loving, caring and amazing. “They offered us anything and everything they had,” she said. Peak agreed.

“Even though the family didn’t have a lot, they were still trying to give back,” he said.

As the students spent four days and about 40 hours on the roof, they were surprised by their relationship with the family by the end. “It was strange how close everyone became after four days,” he said. “You’d think we were there a lot longer than a week.”

The students would spend their lunch breaks with the family; getting to know them on a personal level. The owner, Tim, called the students his “good kids” and even took down their phone numbers and birthdays. Both Hemmen and Peak were amazed by the appreciation from the family.

“We are giving what we can to them, but the family is pretty much giving all they have to us,” Peak said.

An Unexpected Feeling

To Hemmen and Peak, one of the best aspects of the trip was the collective experience with other college students.

“It was cool to see how much you have in common with people who do not live relatively close to you,” Hemmen said. “We are just college students; we have our differences and similarities, but the whole experience brought us together.”

Both students were encouraged to step out of their comfort zone. “It is a humbling experience,” Peak said. “Every time you think of poverty, you think of overseas in other countries, but it is right here in our backyard.” Hemmen agreed.

“I didn’t realize what kind of impact the trip would have on me,” Hemmen said. “The impact was greater than what I thought it was going to be.”

Maggie Smith, project leader and senior elementary education major, wasn’t surprised by Peak’s and Hemmen’s experiences since a year before, Smith received her own life-changing moment on the trip.

She recalled focusing on finishing a roof for a needy family during last year’s Alternative Spring Break trip to McKee. At the end of the week, the mom pulled her aside to thank her for building the roof.

“The mom said, ‘I know I didn’t really get to see you, and I don’t even care because you are up there working. It means so much to me. Every single night I prayed to God that it doesn’t rain because I didn’t want to have to clean up my kitchen, but now I will pray for rain because I have this roof over my head,” Smith said.

The woman’s words were life-changing for Smith, who said it strengthened her reason for service.

After her first trip, Smith decided to help out with summer camps and return as a group leader for the Christian Appalachian Project. She even plans to return in the summer.

“I think volunteers just expected to go and work. I don’t think they expect to have a completely different perspective,” Smith said.

Both Hemmen and Peak said they experienced a good feeling from working with the families that changed their perspective — a feeling they have a hard time articulating.

“We can tell our families, friends and boyfriends and girlfriends what we did, but they do not understand until they get there,” she said. “There is no way to understand until you go and do it.”

For more information about Alternative Spring Break Trips, go to http://www.eiunewman.org/. Any EIU student can take part in the trip.Some of the other trip destinations included New Orleans, La., Jackson, Miss. and Grainger County in Tenn. This year, EIU’s scheduled Spring Break was March 16-20.

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