by Amille Bottom
photography courtesy of Pexels
Excitement buzzed in the air as ten thrilled and slightly nervous college students gathered together just outside of the GSU at the beginning of spring break. A long day of travel to San Juan, Puerto Rico awaited us, and for most of the group, it would be the first time we had traveled with strangers.
One of my biggest fears before departing for ASB was the prospect of spending a week in a hostel with people I had never met before. This fear dissolved within seconds of arriving at the airport, as friendships were quickly formed over the debate about which snacks would be best for the plane ride ahead.
Upon arrival in Puerto Rico, we explored the hostel (a charming place, painted with scenes of the ocean and jungle), grocery shopped at Walmart (trying out local drinks like Malta was a must) and went over the schedule for the week. Our days would be spent volunteering for Iniciativa Comunitaria, an organization based out of San Juan that is devoted to “advocating for the fundamental rights of communities and its individuals,” as well as promoting “inclusive, transformational, community-oriented public policy geared towards attaining quality of life and a healthy peaceful coexistence, particularly for individuals that suffer social exclusion.”
The first day of service was spent at Punto Fijo; here, we assembled needle packets for drug users in the San Juan area. The work was simple, but we could tell it was greatly appreciated. The man in charge of the center informed us that what we accomplished in an hour would normally have taken him all day to complete on his own. The needle packets are a key part of Iniciativa Comunitaria’s outreach: the clean needles are exchanged for used ones, decreasing the risk of the spread of HIV and Hepatitis C in the community.
We later worked with a local food bank in the area, assembling food care packets for financially burdened families around the city. The day was steamy and warm, but the whirring fans of the warehouse, as well as the laughs we shared with employees of the food bank, kept us cool. We also helped unpack pallets of donations, organizing and stacking them on shelves. Soon enough, the people in need would be delivered food and hygiene products.
Perhaps the most rewarding moment of service occurred on the last night of the trip. We worked with Operation Compassion, a program “made up of volunteers who deliver food, medical care and prevention kits to the homeless by doing nighttime and weekend street rounds in the Metro area.” This night was extremely impactful and inspirational. We worked from 8 p.m. to 2 a.m., and in the process, we met dozens of homeless and in-need people of San Juan, many of which were veterans. We listened to their stories and met their friends; it was heartwarming to see the families they had created.
One particular group of men had formed a family on the streets. I had the joy of talking to Javier, a man devoted to his pet dog, “Javi.” Javier had been saving stray dogs for years, giving them love and support. It was particularly amazing to see just how kind the men were to Javi: the pet gave them a reason to unite as a group. They created their unit around him. To see the connections the members of Operation Compassion made with the homeless of San Juan was an eye-opening experience, and one I will truly never forget.
While the service was the focal point of the trip, we managed to sneak some fun in as well. We hit the beach, eating freshly churned coconut ice cream after swimming in clear blue waters; we hiked through El Yunque, a national rainforest filled with beautiful waterfalls (after getting lost on the road up the mountain); and we ate local cuisine in Old San Juan, embracing the delightful tastes of “amarillos,” or plantains, and beans and rice.
Overall, my Alternative Service Break was life-changing. It not only allowed me to visit a part of the world I had never ventured to before, but it taught me about the importance of teamwork, compassion, love and an open heart and mind. I will forever be grateful for the experiences I had, the friendships I made and the sights I saw. In the words of Iniciative Comunitaria, “Somos un gran abrazo” (We offer a large embrace).
To learn more about Alternative Service Breaks, visit BU Alternative Service Breaks.