BLOOMINGTON — A group of Illinois Wesleyan University students put their right hands in and their right hands out over a long weekend on the west side of Bloomington.
The hokey pokey wasn’t what it was all about — but it was part of it.
Alternative spring break programs, during which college students travel to other communities or countries to do volunteer work, have become fairly common at universities. But IWU decided to try something different with its fall break — which is really just a three-day weekend — and have an “alternative fall break” without leaving town.
University Chaplain Elyse Nelson Winger, who also coordinates the spring break trips, said, “You don’t have to drive 10 hours to immerse yourself in another neighborhood. You can do that here.”
A dozen students took part in the full weekend — starting with a dinner and dance with senior citizens Thursday night at the Western Avenue Community Center and ending with cooking the Sunday evening meal at Home Sweet Home Ministries’ homeless shelter. They ate meals together and slept in the center’s gymnasium for three nights.
Among the places students volunteered was the West Bloomington Community Garden.
The garden took a beating from summer heat and drought followed by frost. Like the neighborhood surrounding it, the garden had some plots that were well tended and others overgrown with weeds and in need of help.
Cool, wet weather Friday morning didn’t seem to dampen the enthusiasm of students as they harvested a few surviving vegetables and cleared weeds and old plants. Two students even broke into an impromptu dance to demonstrate steps one had learned from a senior citizen the previous night.
And there was one dance that crossed generations. “We did the hokey pokey with everyone,” said Hannah Eby, a sophomore from Dubuque.
But students aren’t only learning how to dance. “I’m learning about food justice and the community work that is going on,” Eby said. She decided to take part because “I wanted to give back to the community.”
Joe Daniels, a senior from Brookfield who has participated in spring break projects in other states, said he was surprised to learn the community garden was “pretty much in our backyard and we didn’t even know about it.”
The program was put together by IWU’s Student Volunteer and Resource Center, its Action Research Center and the West Bloomington Revitalization Project.
Winger works closely with Deboarah Halperin, coordinator of the Action Research Center, in organizing this and other projects.
Among places students where volunteered were the Boys & Girls Club of Bloomington-Normal and Milestones Early Learning Center. They also organized a fall festival at the Community Garden.
Winger said the nice thing about having a local alternative fall break program is that students have time to develop a program and keep working on it.
Rick Heiser, a board member for the revitalization project, said he hopes the students will “continue to develop the relationship and see their efforts manifest over time.”
He said the students are “very positive, very motivated. They want to be here. They’re hard workers.”
Jeanine Reina, a freshman who had done volunteer work at the high school in her hometown of Seattle, found it interesting to learn more about Bloomington.
“I didn’t know how different the community was outside our Wesleyan bubble,” she said.
As Winger watched the students harvesting some peppers, she said, “Maybe we’ll plant some seeds for doing more community work.”