Alt. Spring Break unites students, West Virginia Coaling Community

Dilapidated. Decrepit. Destitute.

Those were the first three words that came to my mind when I arrived in West Virginia for an alternative spring break. I went with 52 other UConn students on a coach bus that would take us to Oak Hill—the town where our volunteer service was located.

As the bus moved through the state, I could see mountains stripped from their vegetation by the winter weather: rocky rivers with a teal tint, flowing through the valleys. Unlike some homes in the northeast, the homes in West Virginia were vastly spread out. About one or two homes per hill, that were mostly one one-story with zinc roofs, peeled paint—they looked like shacks. Most of the homes I passed by were run-down or abandoned.

It was an interesting contrast: the beautiful scenery from the surrounding nature along with signs of poverty all interconnecting. You see the full picture, not just the good parts and not just the bad parts.

In order to get on an alternative spring break trip, you need to apply. I applied through Community Outreach , but the trips are also available through Habitat for Humanity or in the Honors Program.

So, I should probably tell you a bit about me. I am a sophomore here at UConn, double majoring in journalism and human rights. I wanted to go on this trip because I wanted to observe and know more about rural poverty in America. I think it’s important for a journalist to report from hands-on experience instead of just reading, hearing or watching something.

I would say the best part of going on an alternative break trip was interacting with the locals and connecting with the students in your group. This is the type of trip that requires your effort and putting your heart into it, but you will gain much from of it.   

John David is the director of the Southern Appalachian Labor School (SALS) and an AmeriCORPS VISTA worker. SALS was one of two local organizations we partnered with to help with construction work of rundown, abandoned homes. AmeriCORPS, on the other haind, is a national organization that takes volunteers and puts them in impoverished neighborhoods in America, to help locals rebuild their community.

David gave us a lecture on the history of West Virginia and how the state went from a booming coal mining industry to economically and socially disadvantaged. He said West Virginia was a labor state with large influence from unions. The state first took a hit after WWII coal was not used as much and then again when electricity was used instead to make products.

He said that the coal-mining decline has left many feeling hopeless, because of employment and poor government infrastructure.

“There are a lot of people that are hopeful that coal will come back,” David said.

Since there were 53 of us on this trip, we were divided into four groups. They were blue, purple, yellow and orange teams. I was placed in the purple team, which included myself and 11 other UConn students. Each team had a team leader and “learning partner” that would tell us what building site we were going to and reflect with us each night on our general feelings and what we gained from the trip.

Scott Seigle, a senior healthcare management major at UConn, travelled to West Virginia this year for his third alt-break. Seigle said he liked going on alt-breaks because you learn more about a community and yourself.

The leader of my team, Heather Knorr, a senior environmental engineering major, was charged with providing questions for our group reflection and directed our group’s activities.

She described how this alt break trip impacted her through the people she met and the work she did.

“It was an eye-opening experience and I learned immensely from the people in West Virginia, as well as all of my team members,” Knorr said. “I am so grateful for all of the growth and the bonds that will last a lifetime.”

Since this was my first alt-break, I would say that meeting new people and listening to their stories was the best part of the trip.

At our building site, we met up with four youth builders, from SALS, who helped us paint and prime a house that was being remodeled.

Jonathan “Swaff” Swafford was one of the youth builders that we worked with. He is 26 years old and has three children. In between joking and working with Swaff, he would occasionally share more serious parts of his past.

He said that his children’s mother does not live with him and that they have a difficult relationship. Yet, he also shared with us of his love for his children.

“I want my family to grow up knowing they have a father,” Swafford said.

On Wednesday night, SALS had a country singer come and entertain us. His name was Billy Payne and he described his style of as “outlaw country.”

Payne, a native of West Virginia, said he’s been playing music for about 26 or 27 years. He said that his biggest concert was for a Texas internet radio station, in which 6.8 million people heard his music.

He his song-writing process with us.

“You don’t just start writing immediately,” Payne said. “You gotta live it.”

One of my favorite people I met, would be Paul Corbit Brown, a photojournalist that now works for Keeper of the Mountain Foundation (KOMF). KOMF raises awareness about mountain top stripping and how the toxic minerals produced from that affect the environment and also the people living in the area.

He gave each team a string that we could tie on our wrist. He said the reason for the string was to show us that humans are a part of nature, not separate from it.

“We need you to be there to help hold this together,” Brown said. “Many fibers make the rope.”

During the week, we had a daily routine. We had to wake up around 7 a.m. or 8 a.m. and would be doing work for most of the day. There were times I felt uncomfortable, because I was in an environment I’m not used to. But the discomfort went away quickly once I pushed it aside and remember why I decided to take this trip.

As I boarded the coach bus heading back to Storrs, I reflected on the quick week that I spent in West Virginia. I have now acquired knowledge of a new state, of a community that I would never have met before. I have observed another part of America that most don’t get to see and took what I learned home to my own environment. Also, I now have connections with more UConn students instead of it being limited to my usual circle of friends.

In contrast to the first three words I used to describe my impressions of the Oak Hill area, I chose three words that I would use to describe my reflections on this my alt-break: Insightful. Interwoven. Inspiring.


Tama Moni is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at tama.moni@uconn.edu.