Fri. Jun 9th, 2023

Over this most recent spring break, I traveled, made plenty of new friends and even got a decent suntan. There was a myriad of Snapchat moments and jokes told during delicious and somewhat foreign meals.
No, I did not spend my week soaking up the sun and swimming in blue oceans at some tropical beachside resort. I got my share of vitamin D during an alternative spring break to Philadelphia.

The goal was simple enough, in writing at least: A group of eight students and two adults venture to the City of Brotherly Love to help combat food insecurity. I found out about the trip last semester, although I can’t for the life of me remember exactly how it fell into my lap. I’ve settled on either finding it in an email or on a poster.

We had weekly meetings every Friday this semester leading up to spring break, and when the day finally came to head out, I still had some hesitations.

Various questions ran through my mind as we all drove down, packed in a West Chester University van, with our faculty advisor Dr. Ashlie Delshad at the wheel.

What if we all can’t keep a conversation going? What if I feel awkward the whole time? How can we even begin to help a city as large as Philadelphia?

The questions that occupied my mind in the first hours of our trip quickly dissipated once we arrived at our destination.

The drive down was the much-needed icebreaker that set the course for the way the rest of the week was going to go. We all got comfortable with each other so quickly, as if we had been friends for years.

During the week we were in Philadelphia, we stayed in a beautiful church located in Center City, which also doubled as a homeless shelter for locals.

To go along with our mission of sustainability, we took public transortation to our work sites as often as possible.

The first site we went to was Awbury Arboretum, located in Germantown. Awbury is a large, open area filled with various greenhouses, walkways and even a secret garden. We spent two days at this site planting seeds and working with Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (PHS) employee Lisa Mosca. Mosca was truly a pleasure to work with throughout the week. She gave everyone ample information on how to continue volunteering with PHS, and she always had a smile and willingness to help.

Other sites we worked on included Stenton Family Manor, Heritage Farm, and other various urban garden sites in north Philadelphia.

Throughout the week, we cleaned the trash and excess foliage from various sites, prepped garden beds, and even dug massive concrete slabs out of some garden areas (possibly the oddest task we had all week).
Our tasks were not always easy, but they were made less difficult by the flow of conversation and collaborative energy.

During our last work day, we were tasked with digging out concrete slabs from the garden area at Stenton Family Manor. Our hypothesis was that the slabs were formerly part of a playground set and the farm empolyees had to design the garden around it.

We worked for hours with sun on our backs, sweat lining our foreheads, and dirt jammed up our fingernails. After a while to no avail, some of our spirits were diminshed. But then, we finally got one slab out of the ground and we all rejoiced, garden-gloved hands raised in the air and giving each other high fives.

On the way back from that last day of labor, one of my peers said how much of a team-building activity that day was. It might not have seemed like a lot of work or like it was that important on paper. Yet we left the site knowing that by clearing that space, we had really helped Stenton out.

It all came together in a beautiful, full-circle kind of way. We were literally starting with the roots of where food comes from by planting and sowing seeds. Then with our cleaning of the gardens we were able to see how food insecurity affects and at the same time brings together the communities they surround. Finally, by serving a meal to those who were directly influenced by food insecurity, we were able to put the pieces together on this large and often times baffling puzzle.

I had an amazing week full of eye-opening experiences. I met and became friends with nine new people and learned firsthand how important helping those in need is.

I also feel like I saw part of the “big picture” of the food issues that plague large cities like Philadelphia. I know that a week of volunteering is by no means an end-all-be-all to the problems that the communities face, but it was definitely a start.

The car ride back to West Chester was vastly different than the one leaving it. Everyone reminisced about the work we had done, the puns we had made and the progress we had started. There was also a sense of reflection that permeated the van as we drove home. We all imagined what our progress would look like weeks, months, even years from now. The questions that ran through my mind were, needless to say, not similar to the ones I pondered in the beginning of the week.

Who would be eating the food that we helped grow? What families would work together on garden plots we helped clean? How many lives would benefit from our time during this one week?

I definitely can’t wait for next year to do another similar spring break. For those who are interested in what other alternative breaks students participated in and how to get involved next year, check out the showcase on Wednesday, March 30 in Sykes Ballroom A from 3 to 5 p.m. Alternative breaks provide great experiences for important causes, so it’s never to late to join in.

Rachel Alfiero is a third-year student majoring in communication studies with a minor in Latin American studies. They can be reached at or @alfieroperson

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