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Service Trip Activity Packet

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Packet by Ashley Carter

During Spring Break 2008, eleven students from the University of Illinois Atheists, Agnostics, and Freethinkers joined nineteen students from Campus Crusade for Christ on a volunteer trip to New Orleans, LA. There they rebuilt and gutted houses, revived lawns and gardens, painted, and even walked dogs at a local animal shelter. We've put together a profile of the trip with lots of pictures. This trip was so successful (and fun), that we think it should be recreated and organized by groups everywhere. This activity packet will tell you everything you need to know about how to do that!

Why was this trip so awesome?

If your group already does volunteer work, you know how fun and rewarding it can be. This trip allows you to do that for an entire week. The benefits of volunteering can be seen in many different ways.

For individuals:

  • it fulfills a desire to do good

  • allows you to give back to your community

  • helps you develop new skills

  • volunteering is a great activity to include on resumes and grad school applications

  • you get to travel to and visit a brand new city, at a low cost to you

  • you will see a side of that city that is more 'real' than most tourists will ever see

For the group:

  • it is an activity which will fulfill or compliment your group's goals that relate to improving the community

  • the trip will bring current members closer and create lasting friendships

  • it will cause members to become more involved in the group and generate more interest in group leadership

  • any non-members who go will likely become regulars at future meetings

  • coordinating with another group creates a positive and rewarding relationship between the two groups

For all nontheists:

  • working together with theist groups opens a dialog and shows solidarity between groups that can often be quite divided

  • when one volunteers as a member of a nontheist group, this works to improve the image of all nontheists, not just the individual or the specific group

Can your group do this?

The UI group was a large, active group at a larger school, but don't worry, this activity can be made to fit even a very small group. Some adaptations will likely need to be made, but as long as a motivated, reliable core is planning it, there should be no problem.
You should start planning at least three months before you plan to leave to allow enough time to ensure everything goes smoothly. We have prepared a handy checklist to keep in mind while planning. This is quite a time commitment for those planning it, at least a few hours a week between when you start planning and when you leave. Also, those who attend will be donating an entire week of their time, not always an easy thing to do. To begin:

  • Talk with the executive board of you group-especially your treasurer.

  • Recruit others to help you plan and delegate tasks to different people.

  • Remember you will likely need the help of about 2-3 people in addition to your treasurer.

  • At one of group your meetings, ask for an informal show of hands to see how many people would be interested. This will just be an initial, ball park figure, with an exciting announcement later and some persuasion, it will likely go up.

  • A medium sized group is ideal (about 7-12 people).

  • If more than 12 are likely to go, check to see if your school will provide funding for that many.

  • If 3-6 people are likely to go, you might want to recruit more people, coordinate with another SSA-affiliate in your area, plan on waiting until there is more interest, or go for it anyways! As long as you coordinate with larger groups or with agencies who know you have a small group, then there is no reason not to go. You can use your glorious tales of kindhearted adventure to help with recruitment for your next trip.

  • Determine if you want to coordinate with a group on your campus, other SSA-affiliates, or plan it yourselves, then look into what your options are.

What groups can you coordinate with?

Many groups have pre-existing resources which they would be happy to let you utilize in planning your own service project. The help they can contribute can range from a list of known volunteer groups they keep on file to allowing your members to sign up for a trip they have already planned. Either way, these are resources you should research first, as they may provide you with all your answers in one spot. Working with a 'logistic-helping' group like this is likely a much easier method than attempting to set up the entire trip on your own. Of course, it is entirely possible to contact volunteer agencies and plan the trip specifically for your group, it should be noted that it will take some extra time and effort.

Alternative Break Groups: These groups have numerous contacts and have often been planning group volunteering trips for years. They are a great resource for volunteer agency contact information, estimated costs, legal issues, transportation, housing, and much more. Also, if you have a chapter on your campus, they could coordinate with you in possibly setting up a trip for your group members and give you information on how to receive funding from your school.

  • Chapters of Break Away- find one on your campus.

  • Alternative Spring Break- Check your school's group list to see if there is one on your campus. These groups often hold trips for spring and other breaks.

  • New Orleans Relief Groups- These groups send students to the New Orleans area a few times a year to rebuild houses or work with other various volunteer agencies in the area.

  • Habitat for Humanity- find an affiliate on your campus or check out the national website.

Theistic Groups: Many religiously-affiliated groups hold Spring Break mission trips which are often already well planned out by staff members. By making contact with the group's leaders, it could be possible to send a group of members from your organization along on the trip, like we did. If they do not already have something like this in place, you could ask them to plan with you or just invite them to come along.

Volunteer Agencies: If you want more freedom in planning the trip or your school does not have any of the groups above, you can also coordinate with a volunteer agency drectly. This also allows you to choose what region or city you plan to travel to. In choosing to do this, note that those planning the trip must commit much more time for planning. The group will have to arrange individually for lodging, transportation, transportation to work sites each day, insurance, funding, etc.

How can you make this extremely affordable?

With a student income, a trip across the county may seem daunting, but there are many ways to fund the trip which will keep the cost to your group members to a minimum. For a 5-7 day trip, the trip is likely to cost $200-$300 per person including everything except personal spending money. If you use the following resources, this cost could be greatly reduced, and could even be free.

  • Funding from your school: Many schools offer a system where you can request funds to pay for transportation, lodging, fees, and more. Contact your school's student senate, student organizations office, resource fee office, or whatever system your school uses. (For the Illinois trip, we had to apply about six weeks prior to the trip. The hotel and transportation costs were fully reimbursed by the school's organization resource fund, and since they paid for gas by distance, the extra was distributed between attendees. After reimbursements were paid out, the final costs for students were only dinners and spending money.)

  • SSA Project Grant Fund- $100-$500 grants available, more information and an online application.

  • Local off-campus atheist/humanist groups- this SSA resource might help you find one in your area if you have not already been in contact with them. For these groups, the leader of your student group will likely have to contact the leader of the regional group directly. You can visit this website for information on what to say when you contact them. Be specific about what you are asking for and maybe include the materials you used to pitch the idea to your student group. If you have already applied to the SSA or other organizations for funding, you may find the application you submitted something that may be useful to send to this regional group as well. You should also let everyone you're applying to for funds know who else you have asked. Funders love to know that they are investing in the same project as others. If you have trouble making contact, feel free to ask SSA staff for help.

  • Inexpensive options for lodging: there are various ways to reduce the cost of lodging. See if anyone in your group has relatives in the area who could house you for free or almost free, try to find cheap hotels, or check to see if any student hostels are in the area. Hostelz is a great database that has information on most hostels. You can also check them directly at: Hostel World, Hostel Bookers, and Hostelling International. Contact local off-campus groups in the area to see if they could help you find local housing or if any of their members would be interested in housing some students for a week!

  • Inexpensive methods of transportation: If driving, try to find members of your group to drive their own cars, consider regional or national buses like Greyhound, or there is regional and national rail like Amtrak.

How do you get your group members interested?

So you've planned most of the trip out and now it is time to start signing people up to go. It is important to generate interest because you want the trip to be as successful as possible, and for that to happen you will want a large and excited group. There are a few key ways to do this:

  • If you coordinate with another group, have a member from their group announce it at your weekly meeting. People are often more interested in what someone they do not know has to announce than if it were from a person who speaks every week. This type of special presentation also emphasizes how important and exciting the opportunity is for your group members. Make sure to make it clear that you invited this person to present to the group though.

  • If your group does not coordinate with another campus group or if they can not come to speak, consider other creative ways: a vibrant power point, a skit, fliers, or a goofy drawing on the chalk board.

  • Announce it in multiple ways: email, Facebook, your group's website, and at the weekly meetings.

  • Hand out informative fliers at the meeting so people know the specifics (with dates, housing, transportation, and funding information). The more specifics you can give people about the trip, the more likely they will decide to participate.

  • Pass around a non-binding sign-up sheet so more information can be sent to those who are interested. (You can verify their interest later. Also, if you pass this around during the meeting, people will be more likely to sign up than if you ask them to come up after).

  • Once you have a list of people, make sure you keep in regular contact via whatever method works best for your group: emails, Facebook group or event (this will allow for more informal discussions), Google group, planning meetings before/after weekly meetings, and make sure people know who to get into contact with if they have questions or forms/money to turn in.

  • If you still need more attendees, ask people to spread the word to friends, siblings, members of other like-minded groups, etc. Welcome these people to attend because it could create more interest in you group in general.

What other things need to be done leading up to the trip?

  • Verify who is going, ideally with a deposit, or at least by making sure students turn in their forms. In the course of planning this your group might need a bank account (especially if managing deposits), so setting one up for your group might be a good idea. It would be better than loosing students' money. However, if you work with a logistic group, most of the money paid or deposits made will likely be to them directly.

  • Communicate trip specifics to those who are attending; time and meeting place for departure, hotel, supplies needed, room assignments, etc.

  • Exchange contact information between attendees. This is important in case someone is late or if drivers get lost. Ideally collect everyone's cell phone number before you leave. Send out the list to everyone a day or two before you leave. It also can't hurt to print up enough copies of the list for everyone and hand them out as you're getting ready to leave.

  • If you go with another group, attend their meetings or try to organize another event with them beforehand. (The University of Illinois group held a panel discussion and blood drive before the joint trip so many people already knew each other.)

Things to remember while you are on the trip:

  • Set up a central location to meet at for departure.

  • Try to get to know all the new people or the people in the group you are going with, be inclusive and proactive! Don't wait for new people to reach out to you, start talking to them.

  • Plan fun events to do at night: a trip downtown, sightseeing, dinner at a famous restaurant, game nights, T-shirt making, pizza in the hotel, swimming, a jam session, etc. (Make sure to leave people time to do things on their own, too.)

  • Take lots of pictures!

  • Switch things up so people don't always ride in the same car, work together, and room together the whole trip. One of our biggest complaints after the Illinois trip was that people did not get to know everyone.

After you get back:

  • Discuss the trip at your next meeting, and include a slide show of pictures, stories, quotes, and maybe even graphs.

  • If funding issues are not settled, settle them as quickly as possible.

  • Assign someone to do a write-up for your group's website, newsletter, campus newspaper, and SSA's eMpirical.

  • Organize a reunion potluck, game night, etc. Theme it around the city you went to, for example a Gumbo Night if you went to New Orleans.

  • Plan for your next trip, and make it even better!

Things to watch out for:

  • Financial issues are always tricky. Make people pay upfront if you can, it could be very difficult to get people to pay once you get back to school and you do not see them regularly. If you do a reimbursement method with your school, collect the documents before you leave or remind people to hold on to them (receipts, bills, statements, etc.). Make sure that everyone understands how the financial issues will work before they agree to go on the trip.

  • Find out your school's policies on alcohol. If they are funding the event, you may not be allowed to drink during any portion of the trip, and could loose funding or face serious charges from your school. This could be true even if you are 21 or over. Also, if you coordinate with another group, they could have similar rules for trip attendees. Communicate this information with those who attend so there are not any problems.

  • If someone gets hurt while volunteering, it could be very serious. Look into volunteer insurance or see if the group you are working with has this. It is important to verify this and get the specifics (some parents might want this information, also). Many of these plans do not insure you as you travel, though. Here are some price comparison websites for purchasing travel insurance yourself or for the group: squaremouth.com, insuremytrip.com. Most medical insurance policies cover emergency care during travel, so as long as every student has medical insurance, this could be sufficient. Many colleges require students to have medical insurance, so that could be one way to ensure everyone is covered. It may be possible to discuss with the office at your school that insures students whether their policy includes insurance for this type of trip. Many school insurance plans include Scholastic Emergency Services for students when they travel abroad or 100 miles away from permanent/school address. Also, your school might have a policy already in place for all school sponsored trips.

  • For travel or any event sponsored by a student group, certain forms could be required by your school.

  • Verify the reputability of any organization before you give them money or agree to work with them. Ask groups or people they have worked with in the past or see how long the organization has been around. If there is poor planning on their part, people could be left standing around doing nothing, be injured, or placed in dangerous areas. You can also check them at the charity section of the Better Business Bureau.

  • If you choose to attend with a religious group, look into or ask about what religious activities may be involved. If some are involved (though they are likely not required), this may put off some people from your group. Make sure both the members of your group and any religious organization that you're working with have a clear understanding of what to expect from each other.

Ashley Carter is a senior at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. She is majoring in Philosophy and Political Science. Upon graduation, she hopes to pursue a joint degree in law and public policy. She is the current president of Atheists, Agnostics, and Freethinkers at the University of Illinois and hopes to plan more of these trips for her group in the future.

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