Staff Writer Sarah Evans
Giving New Meaning to Privilege
"Why is my leg wet?"
This was my first thought as I awoke in the middle of the night on day five of our weeklong Take a Break trip. I rustled around inside the sleeping bag cocoon I had constructed to protect me from the rain and freezing temperatures outside my tent. That was when I discovered a large wet spot inside my bag.
A glance at my Indiglo watch revealed the time, just after 4 a.m. I was slightly panicked as I tried to emerge from my sleepy haze -- why was I wet? Hours earlier I had listened to showers pounding my canvas rain fly outside as I drifted to sleep. But that was supposed to be outside only. I thought I was safe from the elements.
I finally got the courage to pull an arm out of the cocoon and feel the bottom of my tent. Pushing down on the nylon was like patting the top of a waterbed -- water had pooled beneath my tent and soaked through multiple layers before reaching my skin. Anyone who has tent camped will tell you the thought of having to get out of your tent in the night, especially in cold weather, is like going to the dentist to get a tooth pulled -- you know you must do it, but the dread makes you put it off as long as possible. I had no choice -- I was getting wetter by the minute. I took my damp sleeping bag outside and into one of our 12-person vans, where I sprawled across a bench seat, a chilly but dry respite for another hour's restless sleep.
Did I mention that this fun-filled pre-dawn experience was on my birthday?
I probably shouldn't start my story with this anecdote, because by now you're thinking Take a Break sounds like a positively miserable experience. But despite -- and even partly because of -- this incident, TaB was one of the most wonderful journeys I've taken in recent years.
Before I participated in TaB, I had only heard students' post-trip stories of the wonderful activities they took part in, and I knew nothing of the difficulties they faced in planning, implementing and participating in these projects. The wet sleeping bag anecdote gives you a taste of what the participants withstand for the sake of this experience, one that changes, perhaps forever, their lives and the lives of the people they meet.
Created seven years ago, TaB is a student-led alternative break program that allows Willamette students, faculty and staff to travel across the country, combining community service with learning about social justice issues. Every part of the program is facilitated by students -- including the months of planning to prepare each trip and raise $70,000 to pay for the total cost of the program.
TaB's motto is CJS2 -- Community. Justice. Service. Simplicity. Participants learn about problems faced by members of communities they might not otherwise encounter. But they don't just lend a hand and leave. Each day is filled with time for reflection on the projects completed, the people encountered and the lessons learned. And in another show of solidarity with the communities they visit, participants live simply during the trip. For our group, this meant camping in a local state park, eating vegetarian, and going with only a few cell phones, no iPods and one laptop (mine, as I was the resident writer).
Our trip focused on sustainable and local agriculture in the Willamette Valley. We explored area farms, including several that provide produce to Bon Appétit's food service at Willamette, to learn about the practices of these farmers who work tirelessly so we can choose between various types of lettuce at our salad bar and have fresh strawberries atop our desserts. But TaB isn't just about what we learn -- it's also about providing service and having a positive effect on the communities we inhabit. So as we visited these farms, we worked. We hoed weeds, planted corn seeds destined for a greenhouse, spread compost and tied ropes to guide young tomato plants. One of the farmers later said our work put him weeks ahead of schedule.
We also had another job: Listening to their stories. Many of the farmers we visited use organic or sustainable practices, ultimately making their work much more expensive and difficult. But they choose to farm this way because of strong feelings about the way the Earth should be treated or about the condition and quality of the food we eat. And they want to tell their stories. They want you to understand why supporting local farmers makes your meal actually taste better, and they want you to know why you should worry about whether pesticides were sprayed on your berries or what food a cow ate before being turned into the burger on your plate. Or even just to recognize that your burger used to be a cow.
When you spend a day trudging through mud and manure on a farm, doing several hours of manual labor, often during rain and near-freezing temperatures, one important need immediately drifts to the top of your consciousness: a hot shower. The same applies to when you wake up in a tent after several days away from home and you can't feel your toes. A hot shower starts to become the one thing you would trade for every penny in your bank account. It's a privilege you never considered a privilege until you started the TaB trip.
And that word -- "privilege" -- starts to make you reflect on the people you've met during the trip, whether they're poor farmworkers breaking their backs to feed their families, homeless veterans navigating the streets of Portland, or children living in a crumbling home because it's all their parents can afford. You may be camping during a cold snap or sleeping on the floor of a church, not showering for days on end. For the people you meet, this is life. You only have to endure this for a week, and you choose to do it. It's a sobering lesson for TaB participants, one that runs deeper than the surface issues they encounter daily on the trip.
Admittedly, I wasn't thinking about this as I dragged my wet bag from my tent to the van. Or as I shivered every morning, waiting for the magical "pop" of the electric pot indicating the water was ready for my tea. Or any of those evenings we struggled to get a real fire or a working camp stove to cook dinner for 14 of us. But as we reflected together each evening about our work of that day, it seemed to be the lesson I couldn't easily forget. And I hope that for me, just like many TaB participants, it will be the lesson that guides me in the future.
My birthday started wet and miserable, but I wouldn't trade it for anything.
Since returning from her Take a Break experience, Willamette University Staff Writer Sarah Evans feels more comfortable donning rubber boots and loves seeking her favorite farmers' foods at Goudy Commons. To learn more about how to support or participate visit the TAB website or call 503-370-6807.