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Alternative Spring Breaks: Nashville

Helping build wheelchair ramps down South


Nearly 400 students volunteered in this year’s BU Community Service Center Alternative Spring Breaks program. Now celebrating its 25th anniversary, ASB paired students with 37 organizations around the country involved in environmental, affordable housing and homelessness, children’s services, and animal welfare efforts. All week long, we are bringing you first-person accounts of some of those trips.


I was jolted awake as our 12-passenger van bounced and swerved along a dark, empty Virginia highway. I looked around the van, startled to see a group of near strangers literally on top of one another, all of them asleep. “Relax Co-Co, we just hit a pothole,” said Janette Martinez (CFA’13), my Alternative Spring Break co-coordinator.

I looked down at my cheap digital watch: it was 3:45 a.m. and we were well into our 1,100-mile trip to Nashville, Tenn., to spend the week volunteering through BU’s ASB program. It was at that moment that I realized that I’d only gotten about 40 minutes of sleep and probably wouldn’t get any more the rest of the night. I questioned why I’d ever thought driving through the night was a good idea.

I like to believe that every ASB coordinator reaches a moment when he or she realizes that this is a real event, and not just some magical dream road trip that will never happen. Most coordinators come to this realization sometime between late January and early March. For me, it didn’t happen until we were unpacking power tools and lumber to prepare for our first day on site.

Our group went to Nashville to work with the United Cerebral Palsy of Middle Tennessee’s ramp-building program, designed to help people with limited mobility stay in their homes by providing them with wheelchair ramps. Still a bit drowsy from the previous day’s 18-hour road trip, I couldn’t stop yawning as our site contact, John Pickett, explained what we would be doing for the week.

As Pickett rolled through a litany of carpentry terms (spindles, headboard, decking…), he announced our goal for the week: five ramps in five days. I took the opportunity to glance at my fellow volunteers. What I saw were looks of determination and dedication. I began to understand that this group of random Boston University students was about to make a major impact.

With a break in the rain Monday morning, we launched into work. Pickett barked orders at us in his Southern twang, and we rushed to fulfill them as quickly as possible. Within hours we had our first frame in place. After a quick lunch break, the rain resumed. We worked harder as our work area became muddier, and by the end of the day our labors had produced a beautiful 36-foot wooden ramp for Isaac, a terminally ill cancer patient. Without the ramp, we were told, he would have been forced to moved out of his home and into a nursing home that he couldn’t afford.


Jen Bernier (SMG'15) saws wood for a wheelchair ramp. Photo by Colin O'Neill (CGS’12)

Our construction skills grew immensely as the week progressed. On Tuesday, we built a 50-foot ramp. By the end of Wednesday, we had constructed a 75-foot ramp, and Thursday we barely needed Pickett’s aid at all. The real measure of our advancing carpentry skills was evident on Friday, when we built a 30-foot ramp in under an hour and a half.

Each day seemed to present its own challenge. Tuesday we had to battle record-breaking heat, with limited shade because the trees had no leaves yet. We were down several workers on Wednesday, after one of our volunteers was forced to return to Boston for health reasons, accompanied by Janette Martinez and our trip chaperone, Dan Solworth (CAS’06), assistant to the dean of students, who wanted to make sure the volunteer arrived back at school safely. Yet another challenge on Thursday: the house where we were building a ramp lost electrical power, rendering our power tools useless Through it all, our group remained committed, and by the end of the week we had built five magnificent ramps, providing new freedom to individuals whose lack of mobility had kept them trapped in their homes.

As I merged the van onto the Mass Pike on Sunday, I could hear signs of life in the back of the van. A few members began a Beatles sing-a-long, punctuated by laughter. Driving back to Boston, I realized that the most amazing feat of the week hadn’t necessarily been the five ramps we’d built, but the fact that a group that had begun as 11 strangers had—in just a week’s time—become a family. As I looked in the rearview mirror, I tried to determine the exact moment when these friendships had first begun. I thought about the ramps we’d built together, the rounds of laser tag, the line dancing, sonic runs, diva sing-offs, and the trip to the multiplex to see The Hunger Games, but none of them seemed to be the moment I was looking for. Then as I pulled onto Storrow Drive, it struck me: the moment had occurred a week ago, while our van drove silently down the dark, empty Virginia highway en route to Nashville.

Colin O’Neill can be reached at cponeill@bu.edu.


2 Comments on Alternative Spring Breaks: Nashville

  • shelley solworth on 03.21.2012 at 1:44 pm

    What a great project, start to finish. Such positive, can-do attitudes are exactly what this country (world) needs! Someone recently asked me “what do college students KNOW about building wheelchair ramps?” I am printing this article right now and they can see what college students can accomplish besides getting as drunk as possible during spring break.

  • shelley solworth on 03.21.2012 at 1:45 pm

    you may not want to include the drunk comment but that is what goes on.

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