By: Lauren Wanless '17
To say I learned a lot, met some great new friends, and had an overall amazing time would only be a few short ways to describe my WBA experience. A group of 19 Saint Anselm students, including myself, made Vineland, New Jersey our temporary home as part of the Winter Break Alternative program through Campus Ministry; this means that we voluntarily give up a week of our vacation to engage in service doing hands-on work to improve the lives of those less fortunate. With the help of the Cumberland County Habitat for Humanity organization, our week was packed with the perfect mix of work and play.
Habitat for Humanity is a non-profit organization that relies mainly on volunteer labor and donations of money and materials to build and repair homes for those in need all over the world. With more than 1,500 local and 70 international affiliates, it is no surprise that the organization has helped over 2 billion people worldwide. Underprivileged families must apply to their local Habitat affiliate and are then chosen based on their level of need, their willingness to work with the volunteers to help build their new home, and their ability to pay back the loan. Even though my group did not get to personally meet the family we were building for, we were honored to help improve the lives of such deserving people.
With three vans packed full of bags, students, and plenty of snacks, we headed off on our nine-hour journey to Jersey at 9:30 AM on the first Saturday of the New Year. The long car ride was a great time to bond with our group members, which was just the beginning of the creation of our Habitat family.
When we finally arrived at the Pope John Paul II Retreat Center in Vineland around 6 PM, the friendly staff greeted us with smiles and a hot dinner. Next, we met Rob and Alyssa, our wonderful Habitat coordinators who planned the entire week for us. They welcomed us with gift bags filled with snacks (food seemed to be a reoccurring theme throughout the week) and an official Cumberland County Habitat for Humanity t-shirt. The more Rob and Alyssa talked to us about how awesome the week was going to be, the more excited we were to get started.
Monday was our first day working on the house. Upon arrival at the job site, we met Tom Baxter, a volunteer that helps with many Habitat projects in Cumberland County. Tom instantly became like a grandfather to everyone. We all loved him because of his quick wit, his stories about his wife and their adventures, and his kind, gentle, and selfless nature. Considering we were a group of students who knew little about home construction, Tom was incredibly understanding and answered every one of our millions of questions with patience. He not only taught us how to build a house, but he was great at sneaking plenty of life lessons in as well.
One of the best parts about working on the house was seeing how much our group grew as individuals and as a team. Someone was always there to hold a board steady, pass up materials to someone high on a ladder, or even something as small as cheering someone on if they were having a hard time hammering a nail into the wall. We learned new skills, overcame fears, and had a lot of laughs along the way.
With the help of Rob and Alyssa, we also got to explore some of the attractions the area had to offer. Everyday after work on the house was done, they had an outing planned for that evening. We visited the site of the restoration of the Palace of Depression, a building made completely of recycled materials, the Wheaton Arts Center and Glass Museum, a local Billiards hall, a Movement Lab where we got to channel our inner ninja warrior, Atlantic City, and many more. Other than working on the house, my favorite part of the week was going to Philadelphia. There, we met up with another WBA group from Saint Anselm doing service in Camden, New Jersey. It was fun to see friends and exchange stories, all while enjoying a delicious and authentic Philly Cheesesteak. Our group then headed to the Philadelphia Museum of Art and ended the night racing up the Rocky Steps. All of our nightly outings added even more excitement to an already fun week.
Together, the people, the work, and the adventures made for an overall unique experience for my first Alternative Winter Break trip. The week would not have been the same without every single one of our group members; it really is remarkable how much a group of strangers can bond in a short amount of time and how quickly they can become such close friends. After all of the fun I had during this week, I cannot wait to go on another WBA trip, and I encourage all Saint Anselm students to participate in such a life-changing program as well.