Community building on the 2023 Alternative Spring Break Trip


Photo Courtesy of Living Lands & Waters

Allegheny students pose in front of Living Lands & Waters infamous wall of mutilated baby dolls at the end of their week of service.

River was a haunted baby doll. Hidden among thousands of pounds of waste drifting along the shore of the Mississippi River, she had a face only a mother could love. Her dirty blonde hair was attached to her head by a few stubborn strands, with one solitary hand that hung from a set of red and blue wires connected to her shoulder. She was a doll, but she was also so much more than that. She was a piece of trash.
I found River on our second day of cleaning up the Mississippi River as a part of the 2023 Alternative Spring Break trip with Living Lands & Waters. This trip took eight students and two faculty members on a 12-hour-long drive to Memphis with the mission to clean up as much trash as possible. In just four days, our group, along with two others, collected over 11,000 pounds of trash off of the shoreline.
While on paper, this trip focused on picking up trash in a low-income community, it was about so much more than that. In a much larger sense, this trip was about community building. Going into this trip, I didn’t even know the names of our supervisors. By the end of the first day, we were cracking jokes over fried chicken in Louisville. As we shared our life stories and passions throughout the week, we began to work as a cohesive unit rather than a group of individuals. It seems unreal how close our group grew in those seven days.
Similarly, Living Lands & Waters is such a strong community and a perfect example of the need for such communities in our world.
A tight-knit group of 13 people and two dogs, the Living Lands & Waters team come from very different places and lead different lives, they share a passion for taking care of the environment and took it upon themselves to get others involved, thereby physically and socially tackling this urban issue. The group has such great energy and are really uplifting to be around. Even though their work is less than glamorous, returning to the barge covered in mud most of the time, the group showed up every day with smiles on their faces ready to work with newcomers. They make volunteers feel at home right away. Our leader, Educational Facilitator Mike “Coach” Coyne-Logan, gave us each nicknames on the first day. (Mine was “Broken Glass” — long story.) As we toiled in the hot Memphis sun, throwback music blared from the DJ Boat, providing some positive energy to an otherwise dreary day of work.
As we reflected throughout the week, one thing that we continued to acknowledge was the brevity of our acts of service. As Assistant Dean for Student Leadership and Engagement Eric Stolar recounted, sometimes you’ll go back to the same place a year later and see it was just as trashed as the previous year. While our physical acts might not last forever, the community that we built will continue to grow and fight the issues in a ripple effect.
Picking up trash was actually a lot more fun than I had anticipated. To be honest, once I realized how much work we were going to be doing I had second thoughts about signing up for the trip. After all, who wants to spend their spring break picking up trash from a river? As it turns out, I did. For me, it became something of a treasure hunt.
Obviously I knew the trip was not a game and the troubles we were facing had real consequences, but every time we rode up to the shore, I couldn’t help scanning the area to see what odd things might be there. On the first day, for example, I saw a massive traffic cone on the shore. When I went over to pick it up, low and behold there was a car bumper underneath it. The coolest find of the trip was definitely this full-size grandfather clock that a student from Michigan State found.
The best part about these finds was how excited the whole group became. Multiple times throughout the day, you could hear someone yell out, “Look what I found!” while rushing back to the boat with an overjoyed expression on their face. Every time, the people around them would congratulate them on the find, no matter how insignificant it was. While the work we were doing was arduous and gross and cumbersome, the uplifting community that we created made every minute worth it.
Personally, my best find was River. On the second day, I saw her head poking through the mud and knew I had to rescue her. Navigating through a patch of prickly plants, I almost face-planted to my doom for her. After digging her out of the dirt, I rushed to show her off to everyone, and by the end of that day, she had been attached to the top of our flag.
Sadly, all good things must come to an end. As we made our goodbyes on Thursday, I had to leave River behind, stringing her up on the infamous wall of baby dolls in an emotional ceremony.
In addition to picking up and sorting trash, Living Lands & Waters showed us a series of slideshows explaining the history of their work on the Mississippi River and the real-life consequences of our dependence on plastic. Prior to this trip, I knew that single-use plastics were bad, but had never realized the scale to which we use them. The vast majority of the garbage that we picked up was plastic of some sort, be it bottles, wrappers, old toys, or any number of other items. As Living Lands & Waters posited, the only way to stop all of this plastic pollution from getting in our waterways is to cut back on our use of single-use plastics.
In a similar vein, this trip forced me to acknowledge some privileges that I hadn’t realized I had. As the group explained, not every community has access to recycling. Some people want to do what they know is right, but lack access to the resources necessary to do so. I’m sure even some of my own trash has ended up polluting the environment in some way. At Allegheny, we are super fortunate to have a composting facility in the area to take care of our single-use plastics. Not everyone has the financial stability to be able to give up a week of their time to volunteer in this sort of capacity.
Even though this trip was about giving up time to help out low-income communities, it never felt like I was giving up anything. I had the time of my life aboard the barge and picking up trash and doing whatever else needed to be done. If anything, I feel like I got so much more out of this trip than I put in. I know it’s cliché, but this trip definitely changed my perspective on so many issues. If you ever get the chance, I recommend spending a week in Memphis with the Living Lands & Water crew. Who knows? You might just find another haunted baby to add to the collection.