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Alternative Spring Breaks: Omaha, Nebraska

Volunteering from a chaperone’s perspective

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Dick Lee from Rebuilding Together (back row, from left), Jacob Ruchlicki (CAS’11), John Liao (COM’14), Kiera Vinson (CAS’13), and Betty Fogel; (front row, from left) Amanda Munoz (ENG’14), Marcom chaperone Ryan Agate, Rebecca Spitz (SED’12), Brian DeVito (COM’12, CAS’12), Brittney Shillan (CAS’11), and Karina Lo (SAR’14). Photo courtesy of Ryan Agate

More than 300 students volunteered in this year’s BU Community Service Center Alternative Spring Breaks program. Now in its 24th year, ASB pairs students with 36 organizations around the country, rebuilding homes, assisting at animal shelters, and working at food banks, among other projects. We are bringing you first-person accounts of some of those trips, described by both students and coordinators as unforgettable. Readmore.

Log on here to see the winning entry in the ASB/BUniverse video contest. The winner is Audrey-Jo Soriano (CAS’12), who documented her trip to Springfield, Missouri.

I’d only been to Omaha once before, on a cross-country trip seven years ago. I didn’t get to see much of the city then, stopping only for dinner and a quick walk before heading on to Salt Lake City. The last time I did a 24-hour drive I was 21 years old. I hadn’t really done any volunteer work before, nor spent much time with students since graduating college. But here I was at 29, a Boston University employee, traveling by van with eight students I was chaperoning to help a nonprofit called Rebuilding Together Omaha.

The trip turned out to be one of the best experiences of my life. It had everything to do with the students I was traveling with and the Rebuilding Together staff, who took such good care of us. Our ragtag group of volunteers started out as a quiet group, but over time we formed a tight bond and worked together quite well. Being stuck in a van for 30 hours straight (the trip back took 26) and searching for a restaurant in Cleveland that stays open past 9 p.m. helped bring us together. But it was really the comic antics of Brian DeVito (COM’12, CFA’12) and a night of scary storytelling that sealed the bond.

Rebuilding Together is a national organization founded in 1988 to provide free rehabilitation and repairs to low-income residents. Omaha’s is one of 225 affiliates that make up the Rebuilding Together network. Our work wasn’t difficult, but it sure was rewarding. Our assignment was to spruce up—both inside and out—the home of a retired resident, Betty Fogel, who we think is in her late 60s (she was coy about divulging her age) and still lives in the house that her father built. We spent the week repainting four rooms (the first time they’d seen a new coat of paint in a decade) and cleaning up her lawn (the first time it had been spruced up in three years).

Betty isn’t very mobile, and has two cocker spaniels that keep her company. Besides her nurse, also named Betty, she has very little interaction with other people. So she was giddy with excitement at having a team of young people around for the week. Dick Lee, our Rebuilding Together supervisor, kept us in line while supplying us with the knowledge and the tools to finish each task to the best of our ability. Each day, a Rebuilding Together board member would stop by with lunch, introducing us to such Omaha delicacies as runza (ground beef and cabbage stuffed in dough) or Cheese Frenchy (a battered and fried grilled cheese sandwich served with mayonnaise).

Betty rewarded us at the end of the week with Hi-C and candy bars. But it was the pleasure on her face at what we’d accomplished in her home that was the real reward.

We stayed in dorm rooms at Nebraska Methodist College, a nursing school. Local restaurants, including Spaghetti Works and Old Chicago, provided free dinners for our group through Rebuilding Together. One night we had dinner at the home of a former board member of the organization. But the most exciting part of our evenings were spent discovering the city on our own. Omaha is a pretty wonderful city, with a lot of things going on. The downtown Old Mill area, which the locals are justifiably proud of, was bustling with life on St. Patrick’s Day. The slides along the Missouri River were a lot of fun, even for an old guy with gray hair like me, and the bowling alley just outside of town was the fanciest one I’ve ever been to. Laura, one of our hosts, took us one night to the top of the First National Bank building, which is the tallest building between Chicago and Denver. It provided us ASB folks with a rare 360-degree aerial view of the city and glimpses over the river into Iowa.

Leading up to the trip, I was worried about whether being the chaperone would cause me to feel left out. Yes, there was an age difference between myself and the students, but once we all got to know each other, it was like being on any trip with a group of friends. Everything we took part in—from the volunteering to playing paintless paintball after hours—was great fun and experiences I wouldn’t trade for the world.

Working at BU, I was given an opportunity to accompany the students on this trip and to challenge myself, help out others, and end up with a whole new group of friends. It’s not often that a 29-year-old with bedhead can manage to get a week off work to travel the country for a good cause, but I am glad that in this case I was that 29-year-old.

Ryan Agate is a print buyer in the Marketing and Communications Department. He can be reached at ragate@bu.edu.

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