ERIE, Pa. — Helen Mendenhall was still a prospective student touring the campus of Penn State Erie, The Behrend College, when she first heard about Alternative Spring Break, a weeklong service trip that gives students an opportunity to do meaningful volunteer work outside of the Erie area.
After that, she knew she would not remain a prospect for long.
“I thought, ‘Heck yeah, I have to go,’” said Mendenhall, a biology major. “I’m passionate about helping people and passionate about traveling, so I felt, if I can combine the two, why not?”
Service and volunteering have always been a big part of the Harborcreek native’s life. Those interests helped her quickly find her niche when she enrolled at Penn State Behrend this past fall.
“I’ve found that I feel best when I focus on school but am also volunteering as well,” said Mendenhall, who quickly joined Reality Check, the Penn State Behrend service-based organization that sponsors the Alternative Spring Break trip.
In the past, the trips revolved around one weeklong service project, but this year was different. Instead, the students completed several smaller environmental and human service projects in the San Francisco Bay Area in the communities of Oakland, Alameda, San Francisco, Berkeley and Richmond.
On one day, they performed eco-restoration, removing invasive species and cutting down trees. On another, they visited one of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Oakland to meet with at-risk youth. They also spent time volunteering at a homeless shelter focused on the elderly as well as a local food bank.
“The whole experience gave me new eyes,” said Mendenhall, who was one of 24 students to make the trip. “When you see some of these severe problems, it gives you perspective on what you have and how lucky you are, and you realize that you are able to help others.”
According to Mendenhall, the other major takeaway to come from the trip were the relationships that she built.
Alex Laffey, a senior mechanical engineering major and president of Reality Check, agreed.
“The group we had this year was incredible, and everyone knew that we were there to work,” Laffey said. “They’d encourage one another, and everyone was really proud of what they were doing. Because of that, I felt like we were really able to establish really meaningful relationships.”
Last week, Mendenhall took her final exams, completing her first year as a student at Penn State Behrend. When it comes to service work, though, do not expect to see a sophomore slump.
“For me, personally, it was the most amazing week of my life. Just the fact that we got to do service and so many different things was earth shattering in itself because it gives you so much perspective,” she said. “I’m already thinking about the service work that I can do next year, and I’m so excited.”