Goodwill gone wild

This is the first of a two-part series about my alternative spring break experience. Look for part two on Thursday.

by Bryce Haugen

I didn’t want to spend my spring break traveling the country with a bunch of overstimulated college students on the Honky Tonk Badonkadonk Tour. I wanted to spend it with overstimulated college students on the route through the Deep South.

But circumstances placed me on the ridiculously named trip, and on Friday, March 9, I hopped on a bus filled with mostly strangers for a nine-day adventure. Before we arrived at the junction of 35W and 35E, the 38 apprehensive but excited participants had started the friend-making process.

Students Today Leaders Forever, the University student group that has organized Pay It Forward Tours since 2004, accurately calls it “an alternative spring break,” when students trade booze and debauchery for service projects throughout the country. Last week, more than 500 participants on 15 buses visited 77 communities and dozens of states.

We logged an estimated 10,000 community service hours – or 250, 40-hour work weeks. That’s nearly five years.

The real story is far more complicated than some delusional self-righteous do-gooders thinking they can change the world. Yes, the world changed for the better. But the most important changes were unquantifiable, in each heart and mind. And my profane bus – we watched a Dane Cook DVD twice – shattered the do-gooder mold.

The Honky Tonk crew was well on our way to greatness when we stopped in Story City, Iowa, for lunch. Our eventual destination was San Antonio, but as the old adage goes, it was more about the journey.

Two years ago, I attended the second annual Pay It Forward Tour, performing projects in Chicago, Detroit, Pennsylvania, New York City and Maryland before meeting up with three other buses in Washington, D.C. So before this trip, I thought I knew what I was getting myself into.

Of the countless differences between the two tours, perhaps the most marked turned out to be our bus’s diversity, be it racial, religious, age, geographical, political, experiential or intellectual.

There were three Muslims, one each from Kenya, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates. There was Juxtaposition Josh, our hilarious and inspiring Iraq War veteran. Our equally hilarious Buddhist, Noble Nicole, represented the University of Minnesota-Morris. Seventeen-year-old Patrick, wise beyond his years, offered the high school perspective, alongside Nate, nearly a decade his senior.

We did lack diversity of attractiveness. We all were.

Friday evening, we arrived in Silver Creek, Neb., a railroad town of about 400 – our presence increased the town’s population by 10 percent – in the middle of nowhere. After tossing some Frisbee in our makeshift hotel (an elementary school gym) and playing a name game under a clear, sapphire night sky, we walked down the main drag to a fish fry at the American Legion. Long story short, chatting with the friendly locals was an anthropological adventure for us city folk.

Later that night, following various group bonding activities, a gang of seven toured the town. You can sleep when you’re dead, right?

As we returned to the school, we noticed an abandoned house. With a flashlight and boundless curiosity, we went inside and used a treasure trove of artifacts to piece together the story of who once lived there. (The best find: “The Stork Didn’t Bring You,” a sex ed book circa 1948 that provided endless laughs.)

Following the first of many abbreviated nights of sleep, we walked about a block to a church, where we divided into small groups for various projects around the town.

My crew washed windows at the town’s tiny public housing complex for Carol, the disabled and delightful town clerk, and her neighbors. After the real work, we played games with three rambunctious young residents. Both activities felt like service.

By early afternoon, we had departed for Denver, a city more than 1,000 times larger. With one project complete, our rate of bus bonding grew exponentially. Some slept, but most chat-chitted (yeah, I reversed it) with their new friends about bus crushes (BCs), experiences and personal paradigms. We also threw a dance party (I never thought I would body surf on a bus).

The next morning, we picked up barbed wire scraps and “liberated” tumbleweed along six miles of fencing at an arsenal-turned-wildlife refuge in the suburbs. The project prepared the land for the pending return of a herd of buffalo, once native to the region. After the project, we walked among the wildlife, admiring natural beauty as the Front Range Mountains, shielded by fog for much of the morning, slowly revealed their grandeur.

Within two hours, our bus had started the journey’s next leg, riding the Rockies south to Santa Fe, N.M.

Along the way, we entered a new level of group consciousness, having exited the awkward phase the previous night in Denver. At this point, most people felt supremely comfortable with their companions.

So an amorphous group of about a dozen, including members of several major faiths, started to talk religion. We challenged each other, but remained respectful. And we grew in our own convictions and in our understanding of others’. We also learned a lot about each other – perhaps too much – playing the “never have I ever” game.

It wasn’t always easy to get along with the sleep-deprived crew, but I love them all on a certain level. As Mighty Mikey, my housemate who I convinced to come on the trip, smartly said, “When you understand why people are the way they are, you can get along with anyone.”

Near the end of the drive, our bus started a new tradition: surfing in the aisle as we entered cities.

When we finally got to our home for the night, the Boys and Girls Club, the bonding continued over pizza, dodge ball and guitar jams.

Then things got serious. Our bus core, four leaders among leaders who donated countless hours and megawatts of emotional energy into planning the trip, asked me to set the tone for the night’s “boundary-breaking” activity.

I spoke first, sharing an intensely personal story about trust. Others followed suit. By the end of the activity, two hours later, it was sort of Sobfest ’07.

A few hours later, after checking Facebook, I stumbled upon a computer game named Bryce 4.0 (a cruel joke about my GPA?). The bizarre game allowed users to build their own virtual mountains. If only I could do that for real, I mused. I drifted off to sleep with the conviction to try.

Early the next morning, we cleaned the Boys and Girls Club before heading downtown for some authentic local food and a little shopping. Gretchen, perhaps the most interesting, complicated and misinterpreted trip participant (who promises to be a lifelong friend) was so absorbed in conversation with the local artists, she skipped lunch.

That afternoon, we drove to El Paso for an all-night lock-in at a YWCA. On the way, we split into three groups and planned 40-minute activity and discussion sessions for the 120 or so local 11 to 15-year-olds who attended.

One group felt the project went well. Another felt the exact opposite. A third group shared both views. But we all agreed the experience taught us a lot about leadership.

In many ways, due to adversity and necessity, these kids are more mature than we are, despite their disrespectful façades. Almost all of them had been asked to join a gang. Some had joined. Almost none trusted the police.

I wanted to know more, so at 1 a.m., I nabbed Amber Guzman Marie Ysleta Middle, a mixed ethnicity preteen, to talk about her life. There was only one chair available, so I sat on the floor.

“I get to be teacher,” she said with an infectious laugh.

You have no idea, I thought, my eyes straying to the boot hockey game forming in the parking lot.

After a mostly sleepless night, we spent a few hours souvenir shopping and eating in Mexico – a $0.65 round trip. One highlight: four mariachi singers sang “La Bamba” to our giddy table of eight.

That night at the Salvation Army in Odessa, Texas, during a candlelight activity to mark the last time we would be together as a single unit before meeting up with other buses in San Antonio, each of us talked about what had impacted us the most so far.

At my right sat Eric. Since he and I first collided, if you will, at the Howie Day concert during Summerfest 2005 in Milwaukee, we had only seen each other at parties and didn’t even know each other’s names. This summer, we’re going to work together at a camp for city kids in the mountains of Upstate New York.

When Eric’s candle was lit, he explained how working with kids at the El Paso service project convinced him of his career path.

“I’m now sure about what I want to do with the rest of my life,” he said, with pure joy and a little water welling in his eyes. “That’s pretty sweet.”

As he returned to his seat after lighting someone else’s candle, I whispered to him, “That is pretty sweet.”

What an understatement.

Bryce Haugen, staff reporter, welcomes comments at [email protected].