Alternative Spring Break trip to farm
brings home corrosive effects of hunger © April 16, 2010, Norwich University Office of Communications

Orenda Wooldridge, a civilian freshman at Norwich University, wades through a pen of sheep at Overlook Farm in Rutland, Mass., during feeding time on an alternative spring break trip.

photo by Lisa BruckenOrenda Wooldridge, a civilian freshman at Norwich University, wades through a pen of sheep at Overlook Farm in Rutland, Mass., during feeding time on an alternative spring break trip.

Robyn Taylor sat at a rustic pine table in a dark log cabin with no water or electricity, holding her right hand in a static position. It was cramped and she was frustrated and hungry, missing her hometown of Columbia, S.C.

Taylor, a first-year member of the Corps of Cadets at Norwich University, was on an alternative spring break [ASB] trip with 10 other students and two advisors at Heifer International Learning Center at Overlook Farm in Rutland, Mass. The group was experiencing what it might be like to spend a night in rural Poland. The exercise, part of an immersive, weeklong program, was aimed at creating a sobering look at worldwide hunger and resource issues.

During preparation, students were selected for roles in the extended family they would represent. Taylor lost the use of her hand to represent a disabled person, while organizers instructed two “pregnant” family members to tape water balloons under their clothes.

The Polish experience meant lunch and dinner cooked over a wood stove with food that was bartered at a “market” set up by the volunteers of Heifer Project International [HPI], the nonprofit that runs the program. Meals were considerably smaller than they were used to eating. A lone tomato, accompanying a meal of barley soup and tortillas, was divided among 13 people.

Overlook Farm, an educational center, teaches visitors and participants about the goals and programs of HPI, which seeks to address world poverty. A night in the Global Village, which simulates homesteads from countries where the organization works such as Ghana, Guatemala, Thailand and Peru, was part of the experience.

As the night wore on in the three-room cabin, dimly lit with flashlights, the effect of hunger was palpable. The group’s sense of camaraderie frayed. While working through a hypothetical dilemma—loss of the family’s livelihood—finding consensus took a long time and the discussion was unusually dissonant.

Natalia Zajac, a third-year student from Krakow, Poland, studying political science, thought the experience was meaningful even if she was skeptical of aspects of its authenticity. “It was intense to be hungry together and to work at problem solving,” she said.

Jun-Rong Chen, a senior Corps member and an international studies major from Kaohsiung, Taiwan, was moved. “It gave some insight on how a family might function,” he said. “The lack of choice in meals was striking. I had never experienced that.”

Their surprise was not unusual.

“The most challenging part of the ASB programs is how intense they are,“ said Susan Tyler, a residential education volunteer at the farm who spent the week with the Norwich group. “Our goal is to share knowledge and provide tools for the ASB group to make a difference in their own lives when they leave.”

The Overlook Farm experience was a blend of activities and work. As a functioning farm, there were daily chores.

Mitchell Milliren, a first-year architecture major from Highland Mills, N.Y., had never been to a farm. Two days of nonstop rain, sleet and wind made feeding the farm’s livestock challenging. Yet Milliren was excited as he donned mud boots and prepared to slop through the farm yard with the group. No one complained.

“The entire experience was worthwhile. I appreciated the group itself more as the week went on. We started as strangers,” he said. “But that changed over the week—we became a team.”

Ashley Gavin, the trip’s student leader, provided impetus to visit Overlook Farm—one of three ASB trips taken by Norwich students in 2010. A senior in the Corps of Cadets, Gavin is an AmeriCorps member who organizes student volunteers for weekly community dinners and to work at the Vermont Foodbank.

For Gavin, the trip was the natural culmination of her focus on hunger during senior year. The pre-trip tasks of group paperwork, communication with Overlook Farm, transportation and prepping the group were her responsibility.

“Norwich is a unique place for leadership skills,” said Gavin, an international studies major from Medway, Mass. “Many of the students are Type-A personalities and it can be difficult to lead other leaders.”

Like Gavin, Chen was on his third ASB trip. “Norwich isn’t just about leadership and academics. It provides great opportunities for volunteering,” he said.

Despite homesickness, Taylor praised the experience. “The rewards are great,” she said. “It takes courage to step outside your comfort zone, but that is what I did coming to Norwich in the first place.”

On a brilliant spring afternoon, the group spent its final hours on the farm clearing deadwood and tangled vines from the border of the grazing pastures and organic gardens. After a couple of hours they had amassed impressive piles of brush.

“Dinner that night tasted great because we really earned it,” said Zajac.