Digging Deep: Keuka College Students Plant Trees and Foster Connections During Alternative Spring Break

Nearly a dozen students trade relaxation for restoration on a service-oriented spring break trip.

Wednesday, May 8, 2024

They dug 700 holes and planted 468 Valencia orange and bloodwood trees. They placed more than 2,000 flags as placeholders for future trees. They moved rocks. They were ankle-deep in mud. They found muscles they didn’t know they had. 
And they loved every minute of it. 

They are 10 Keuka College students and the hard work is not what one would expect for a typical spring break.

At Keuka College, that’s the point. Each year, the College offers an annual Alternative Spring Break (ASB), aimed at helping students become more familiar with the world, introducing new experiences and cultures, and exemplifying the College’s vision and mission. ASB has taken students as close to home as Ohio and as far away as Costa Rica.

This year’s destination was Puerto Rico, giving Chloe Barnard, a second-year ASL-English Interpreting major, a chance to put her Spanish skills to the test in an immersive environment.

“I have taken Spanish for eight years and I was able to help with some translation,” said the Geneseo, N.Y., resident. “And that made me feel really good.” 

Translating was about the only part of the trip that didn’t require physical labor.

“We were part of a larger community that served the people of Puerto Rico and beyond,” said Peyton Taylor, a second-year management major from Troy, Pa. “We hiked down, and up, a 1.8-mile trail that was so muddy. To make the trail safer, we scouted for rocks that we could use to improve maneuverability and create a trail all could navigate successfully.”

The group also assisted at a lily pad farm and participated in wetland rehabilitation efforts to mitigate erosion and restore habitat for leatherback turtles. They also spent time with a farmer named Angel. While they lifted hoses, moved plants, pruned herbs, and fed the chickens, he shared with the students some of his plants, asking them to smell an herb similar to cilantro, and showing them the peppers used in sofrito, a flavorful sauce.  

Led by College Chaplain Eric Detar, Director of Community Standards & Student Intervention Tim White, and Academic Success Coach Angie Champagne ’20, the students spent a week in Luquillo, Puerto Rico, embracing the opportunity to step into a world of service.

Shawna Wright, a third-year social work major from Springville, N.Y., enjoyed the camaraderie and appreciated the importance of being available to her team, not just physically but emotionally, supporting her friends through the long days of labor.

“We were always there for each other, making sure we took breaks when needed, helping apply sunscreen, and giving each other encouraging words,” said Shawna.
The journey wasn’t just about work; it was also about growth and understanding. As the students learned about environmental issues and engaged in discussions about conservation, occupational science major Lennon Brandt discovered a newfound passion for green care, which includes therapeutic, social, or educational interventions involving farming, animals, gardening, and general contact with nature. 

“This is something I’ve become very interested in and I’ve been doing more research on this topic since I’ve been back,” said Lennon. “I’d love to bring green care to our area.” 
They also found time to connect with the locals, volunteering at an animal shelter and exploring the historic streets of Old San Juan. For Francesca Herrero, a third-year unified childhood major from Clifton Park, N.Y., it was an opportunity to bridge the gap between cultures through everyday conversations in Spanish.

“It was nice to be able to talk to the farmers in Spanish about their lives. I learned Angel grew up in this area, and his kids are all in the U.S.,” said Francesa. “I was also able to provide some translation.” 

But it wasn’t all hard work and no play. They enjoyed snorkeling in the reefs, learning about Puerto Rico’s aquatic biodiversity, and immersing themselves in the rich history and culture of Old San Juan.
“It was just a fun week of interaction, hard work, and completing some amazing projects,” said College Chaplain Detar. “We had home-cooked meals every day, ice cream from fruits we’d never heard of, and met some amazing people. The students represented the College, their families, and their communities very well.” 
Also on the trip were Cole Chimenti, a first-year social work major from Warren, Pa., Cassidy Donals, a third-year environmental science major from Henrietta, N.Y., Cassidy Gage, a second-year unified childhood education major from Dundee, N.Y., Peyton Ribblett, a first-year political science and history major from Randolph, N.Y., and Olivia Santana, a fourth-year occupational science major from Parker, Colo.