Monday, April 4, 2016

Volunteering in Austin | Spring Break 2016

Last semester, while I was just getting my feet under me during the whirlwind of graduate school, my department chair sent out an email. It was a forwarded message about a spring break volunteer opportunity through a campus organization called Mizzou Alternative Breaks. I was still harboring a dream of visiting friends during spring break so I quickly google'd when my friends would have their spring break.

As it turned out, no one had a spring break that lined up with my late spring break. So, on a whim I filled out the application. Part of the application had a blank with the instructions 'tell a story'. I wrote a sarcastic instructional manual on how to leave a social gathering in a way that ensured maximum awkwardness, a story that was in no way shape or form derived from anything that had ever happened to me. Of course not.

Somehow, barring my admitted social awkwardness, I was accepted into one of the two graduate student volunteer trips and found out that I would be traveling to Austin, TX to work at a vague organization with even a vaguer name.

Fast forward to last week, and I found myself in a huge van on a 16 hour car ride to the wonderful city of Austin along with six other graduate students from a variety of programs. We were going to the Center for Maximum Building Potential to volunteer doing...something, to be determined upon arrival, for the week. The Center is a place that specializes in green architecture, so they work as environmental consultants on building projects, they design sustainable buildings, they come up with new green innovations, and so much more. When we arrived, at half past midnight, we saw our living situation for the first time.

Suffice it to say, camping would have been more luxurious. As a kid, I always wanted to go camping but I have since grown out of that phase after realizing how many bugs would be involved. Our sleeping quarters, which I called the chicken coop, didn't exactly have four walls, had cute little raccoon entryways that the raccoons definitely took advantage of, and was inundated with 'nature'. From the constant hazy cloud of mosquitoes to the copious amounts of spiders and bugs, we were never truly alone.

This little guy set himself to catch some sun outside our bunks and stayed that way for hours. I wanted to pet him but refrained myself. 
There's a saying from the mizzou alternative break organization: be gumby. This apparently derives from a local business whose logo has character which is similar to the air-filled creations that wave around at used car lots. You know, the ones which flap back and forth kind of creepily? The saying basically means to be as flexible as those waving figures.

Well. If there was an award for the most gumby trip (and there should be) then my group has it in the bag! All week we were faced with unexpected challenges. From the ice cold showers (which eventually warmed up to manageable cool showers even bordering on room temperature) to the amazing abundance of wasp nests (including, but not limited to, the wasp nest inside the coffee pot, which forced us to be innovative in the way we brewed our coffee each morning), my group rolled with the punches.

Don't worry, we found a way to brew coffee. Priorities man. 
We were split into three groups upon arriving, with each group assigned a project. After mentioning that I had been glancingly associated with laying concrete during my mission trip to Honduras I was assigned to work with two other students building a ramp on a set of stone steps leading into the Center.

Now, the way the Center works is not the way I learn best. We were thrown a basic idea-- hey, go build a ramp-- and then left to our own devices. We pooled our little-to-none construction skills together and got to work. I still see ramps whenever I close my eyes. It was stressful, confusing, but the bottom line is, at the end of the week, there was a stone ramp where previously there had been none.

Mixing up concrete is the worst.
After nine hours of construction work I look like a 90s boy, 
Working 9 hour days doing construction work on little sleep with the beginnings of a cold taught me a couple things. The most important lesson?

Just how privileged I am. You see, this physically challenging job, hauling rocks and beams, mixing concrete, picking up 50 lbs bags, etc, was a one week exception. This was not just a normal Tuesday for me, as it is for many people. I have the luxury of being able to choose to follow my passion of getting a PhD, a passion that has me working a cushy, indoor job.

 I don't have to worry about breathing in concrete dust day in and day out, wondering just how effective my mask is. I don't have back pain from constantly lifting and breaking open bags of concrete.  This week was physically challenging for sure, but it is book-ended by an job that pays me to follow my passion. When I'm going through midterms it's easy to lose sight of how lucky I am; my spring break was a refreshing reminder.

We had to load these stones onto a pallet and then unload them onto the ramp. It is mildly unsurprising how unprepared I am for manual labor. 

We made our lunch at the center and cooked a couple of campfire dinners.

The fire might look impressive but those flames are due to some quick burning kindling. I know little to nothing about making a fire, and was never able to get this one to burn well.

We ate a couple of dinners out, and discovered this amazing taco place that I'm still dreaming about.

Just look at that perfection. Is a Torchy's in Columbia too much to ask for?
We had a day off at the beginning of the week we used to explore Austin.

An outdoor graffiti art gallery which is constantly evolving. 
Look at those fresh, clean faces. They didn't stay that way for long. 
This cute mural was actually the hardest to find; we drove in circles for a while before finally stumbling upon it.

And that's about it! I'm really glad that I ended up on this spring break trip; it was a last minute whim that definitely paid off. Happy as I was to be in Austin, I'm also happy to be home. I'm currently reveling in the luxuries of my apartment-- hot showers, a bed that has cushion on it, the utter lack of bugs, and not having to be on my feet all day. My legs are spotted with various bruises of all shapes and sizes but the one with the best story is definitely the bruise on my hand which I garnered after getting it stuck in a working concrete machine. That was the most terrifying five seconds (though in my reference frame it was an hour long ordeal #physicshumor) of my life but I escaped with ten fingers that work, so all is well!

As always, thanks for reading! 

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful blog Anna, thanks for sharing your spring break adventure!