2010 Alternative Break Project

From PhiSigmaPiWiki

During the 2009 National Convention, Vice President of Chapter Development Kyle Williams announced Phi Sigma Pi would travel to the Atlanta, GA in 2010. The trip was held January 3rd through January 10th. Brothers built a learning garden at Heritage Elementary School. This was the first elementary school that we have had the chance to work with (the previous two campuses were middle schools). The trip is scheduled to be held between January 3rd-January 10th. During Convention, through the Phi Sigma Pi Foundation, the fraternity would raise $16,000 that would go towards Teach For America initiatives like the Alternative Break Project.

Heritage Elementary School

Heritage Elementary School has students in kindergarten through fifth grade and at the time of the project, approximately 740 students were enrolled. Heritage Elementary is part of the Fulton County School District and is one of 66 elementary schools in the district. 96.3% of students are eligible for subsidized lunch.

The Trip

On January 3rd, 2010, 28 Brothers as well as Senior Region Consultant, Krista Kay, and Director of Expansion, Ryan DeGuzman, arrived in Atlanta. The week in Atlanta consisted of setting up a learning garden for students, shadowing Teach For America Corps Members, interacting with students,and a Q&A session with the Teach For America Regional Office. After all of their hard work, Brothers had the opportunity to explore Atlanta seeing different parts of the city including the Atlanta Aquarium, CNN Center, Coca Cola Factory, and the Varsity.

The Alternative Break Project Corps Members

The Blog

Welcome to Atlanta and the third edition of Phi Sigma Pi’s Alternative Break Project! This year marks an exciting change with 28 Brothers and 2 staff members on site. Throughout the week Ryan DeGuzman, Director of Expansion, and I (Krista Kay), Senior Region Consultant, will be keeping you updated as we all work together to enhance the grounds at Heritage Elementary.

Day 1: January 3, 2010

Today was a travel day and then some! We decided to hit the ground running by having an impromptu meeting where we did a get-to-know-you activity and learned that the Snuggie is an excellent conversation piece, discussed the importance of working as a team by using the strengths of your fellow Brothers, and announced tomorrow’s Alternative Break Challenge event. The Alternative Break Challenge is a new addition this year where each team will be working together on various events. For tomorrow, each team will have finalized their team name and will need to find a rock, which they will decorate, to use as a garden plot marker.

Everyone is excited to get started tomorrow and see the project first-hand. It’s incredible to see so many Brothers finding a commonality of being anxious to play in the dirt!

Krista Kay

Day 2: January 4, 2010

Alternative Break Project Corps Members
ABP Corps Members hard at work
Brothers enjoying a home cooked meal thanks to the Williams' Family.

I woke up at 6 am, with the weather guy on CNN telling me that a cold snap was affecting much of the United States. I dressed up accordingly, but the cold weather would affect our efforts in Atlanta in other ways. Thanks to ingenuity and resourcefulness, our Alternative Break Project participants were able overcome the challenges and get the ball rolling on our service project at Heritage Elementary.

Heritage Elementary is located in College Park, GA – about a 30 minute drive from the heart of Atlanta. The school currently has about 920 enrolled students. Thankfully, a new elementary school will be opening in a few years that will relieve the crowding at Heritage Elementary. But, for now, Phi Sigma Pi is committed to improving the learning environment for Heritage’s current students. The Alternative Break participants will be doing some landscaping work around the Heritage Elementary grounds, building raised garden beds for each grade level and beautifying the school grounds with flowers and plants.

This morning was the kick-off to the project. We arrived on-site at around 9am and received a warm reception from the school principal, Ms. Mahomes, and the rest of the staff. Like clockwork, the Lowes deliveryman arrived about 15 minutes later with our wheelbarrows, rakes, shovels, and lumber to build the garden beds. After a short building tour by the school staff as to where the raised garden beds would go, we set out to get started on digging up the proposed plots.

The project hit a minor setback early on. The cold snap affecting much of the United States certainly affected the Atlanta area, where the ground had hardened, making landscaping and digging a bit difficult. Further compounding the problem was the amount of rocks that were in the dirt. After a team huddle and many thanks to Kyle Williams, Vice President of Chapter Development, who brought a few pick axes and garden hoes, we decided to break up into two groups, with one group throwing all their effort into building the frames for the garden plots and the other team putting 110% into clearing the grass and dirt in the proposed garden plots.

At around noon, we were called back inside to warm up and grab a bite to eat. After a brief lunch with the staff members of Heritage Elementary, we headed out to continue the landscaping project. As we were finishing up the framing, we noticed that the frames weren’t exactly sitting flush with the ground. Another team huddle solved that problem, as we decided to build miniature retaining walls with the rocks that we dug up while clearing out the plots. Talk about ingenuity!

As the day came to a close, we put our equipment away and cleaned up the grounds. We still have a bit of work to do, but everything looks to be coming together quite nicely! Tomorrow looks to be equally as cold, but we’ve hit our stride and we’re all ready to hit the ground running.

Later in the evening, we headed on over to the home of Kyle’s parents for an extremely lovely dinner, complete with fried turkey, macaroni and cheese, sweet potatoes, green bean casserole, and more! Everyone spent the time talking, hanging out, and looking at the Williams family scrapbooks. Call it a Thanksgiving feast, Phi Sigma Pi style. Many, many thanks to the Williams family for their hospitality and hard work! (I was a fan of the fried turkey – I never had it, and it was quite delicious!)

Random fun fact: Kyle’s father collects Christmas Village figurines. It really was awesome to see the amount of detail that was put into the Williams family Christmas Village.

The most exciting part of today? Learning how creative this group is. We hit quite a few “unexpected” moments throughout the day, both on-site and off-site. We dealt with road closures and the frozen ground, just to name two. Nonetheless, Brothers were always ready to give suggestions and ideas to help improve the situation. Creativity, resourcefulness, and teamwork – that’s what our Phi Sigma Pi members are all about.

(Still thinking about that fried turkey… )

‘Til next time,

Ryan DeGuzman

Day 3: January 5, 2010

Brothers Breaking up Georgia Clay

In an attempt to combat the Atlanta traffic, most of which was exiting around Williams Street for all you Adult Swim fans, we left a little earlier than yesterday. Once we all arrived at the school and checked in, we noticed a change from the day before: the students were back in session. The hustle and bustle of the students certainly made the halls of Heritage Elementary seem livelier. Students did not hesitate to say hi or ask us questions.

We headed outside, gathered our supplies, and immediately began the battle against the frozen earth. Although it has been unseasonably cold, today we really felt and saw it. The ground that everyone had worked so hard to free yesterday had not only frozen solid, but also was covered in frost. However, this did not deter anyone, as Brothers grabbed shovels and pickaxes and began to chip away at the frozen ground yet again. At the same time, a group of Brothers took it upon themselves to pick up trash around the school’s campus.

Once the sun came out, we were in full swing. While a team of Brothers worked to free the ground to finish the plot that would become the vegetable garden, Kyle Williams, Vice President of Chapter Development, daringly began to till the frozen portions that were already started. Heritage Elementary was gracious enough to rent two tillers for us to use to loosen the Georgia clay we were encountering at the site. The tillers certainly sped up the process, especially with the Georgia clay since it is very hard and the most effective method of breaking it up seemed to be with a pickaxe or shovel.

Students Visit Brothers at the Project Site

For lunch today, we were treated to chicken noodle soup, grilled cheese and pizza. Since we were eating with the students in their cafeteria, we broke into groups and took turns. Students were friendly and didn’t hesitate to start a conversation.

In the afternoon as we were working, Brent Sarver, a Teach For America Corps member, brought his third grade class out to visit our work site. The third graders shared with us that they just learned about Georgia clay and started to identify the types of rock that we were finding in the clay. Interacting with the students seemed to reenergize everyone and by the end of the day, we were able to have the frames for both vegetable gardens in place, as well as new topography at one the vegetable gardens thanks to the creativity and ingenuity of our Brothers.

This year, Ryan and I have started an ABP 2010 Journal that contains short answers from Brothers to a question each day. Today’s question was “What are you most proud of thus far?” I feel that this is one that I must answer myself as well and a good way to conclude today’s entry. There are many things I’m proud of with this group, but especially today I’m very proud of everyone’s dedication and willingness to participate regardless of the task. At the start of the day, it was so bitterly cold and frozen, but we all stuck with it and by the end of the day, it had warmed up significantly and we really accomplished something! There had been many times throughout the past two days that I heard Brothers say, “for the kids.” Those three little words really seem to motivate when needed most. Brothers have truly embodied the tripod in all aspects on this project thus far and that’s truly something to be proud of!

Until next episode,

Krista Kay

Day 4: January 6, 2010

Every morning while traveling for Phi Sigma Pi, I tune into Headline News to watch “Morning Express with Robin Meade” for my morning news fix. Here’s what I heard at 6 am:

Thank you for tuning in to Morning Express! Today’s top story: the Arctic Blast that’s affecting the majority of the United States. It’s currently 33 degrees in Miami…

When you wake up and tune into Headline News and you hear that it’s 33 degrees in Miami, you know it’s going to be brutally cold in Atlanta. But, you have to just take it all in stride.

Brothers continue breaking up Georgia clay.

We arrived at Heritage promptly at 9 am and Krista and I gave Ms. Mahomes a status update. The difficult to manage Georgia clay certainly set us back, so the priority for the day was to complete filling the vegetable garden beds with soil in the morning, and then to complete the flower beds along the exterior of the cafeteria wall in the afternoon. We planned to be 100% complete with these projects by the end of the day. There’s a forecast for about an inch of snow in the latter part of the week. It may not be much, but any snow accumulation will cause Atlanta to grind to a halt… and thusly, has the potential to cancel school. So, we didn’t want to begin projects that we may not have had a chance to finish.

Although we’re all excited to be here in Atlanta to make a difference in the lives of these children, many of the alternative break members had (understandably) gotten a bit frustrated early on in the day. The Georgia clay was difficult to break through, the weather was more unbearably cold than in days past, and our wheelbarrows were on its last legs.

But, as the day wore on, things began to improve. Although it took longer than planned, we finished filling the vegetable garden beds with soil. Thanks to our alternative break members with green thumbs, the flower bed was completed in a flash. And, the temperature finally became so comfortable that we could take off our heavy winter jackets. It was like Mother Nature rewarded us for our hard work over the past few days.

But, the most heartwarming moment of the day was when students from Heritage Elementary walked outside to our group, smiling and carrying cards with them. Each student made a card, thanking us for all our hard work – the hard work in building the flower beds, the hard work in giving them a new avenue to discover and explore, and most importantly, the hard work in giving them a new opportunity. They were so excited to be planting things in the spring, and we’re all glad that they now have this chance. Ms. Mahomes said it best -- students won’t care to learn until they learn you care.

Brothers holding up thank you notes from students.

We finished our projects at 4pm and clocked out of Heritage Elementary. Later that night, we headed to the Teach For America regional office to meet with some corps members for a casual meet-and-greet and discussion. The discussion was pretty lively, with corps members sharing their experiences in the corps, and Brothers learning more about how Teach For America makes an impact and what it’s like to be in the corps.

After the dinner, we convened as a team to debrief on today’s project and to present the team project for the night. Tonight’s project was to come up with a team chant – and a lot of them were quite clever and fun! You can check them out on the Phi Sigma Pi YouTube channel or the Facebook Fan Page in a few days.

Tomorrow, the Brothers and I are scheduled in the classroom, shadowing teachers and helping out with students. And, Jonah Goodman, the National President, will be making a guest appearance. That is, if the snowstorm doesn’t cancel school for us. This is probably the first time that our Brothers, as college-aged students, are hoping that classes *aren’t* cancelled. Isn’t it ironic?

I’ll check you all on Friday,

Ryan DeGuzman

Day 5: January 7, 2010

Today’s forecast: arctic blast and temperatures lowest in 25 years! However, we were in high spirits because today is a classroom day! Brothers have been eagerly anticipating interacting with the students and for the next two days they will be able to enjoy their time getting to know both the students and faculty of Heritage Elementary a little bit better.

Students from the selected classrooms where we will be shadowing greeted us in the cafeteria and took us to their classroom for the day. Jonah and I started our day by following Tim Kwan and Zach Hess to Mr. Sarver’s classroom. We met the class and introduced ourselves and where we were from. Mr. Sarver had the students follow along on their maps so they could see just how far from Atlanta we all were from. Following the introduction, the students went to Specials, which is a time where they can play educational games on the computer in the computer room. Following Specials, Mr. Sarver’s students returned to their portable classroom to take turns sharing letters from their pen pals in Seoul, Korea.

As the day progressed, Jonah and I switched to a kindergarten, fifth grade and first grade classroom. Here, we were able to learn a little more about the home lives of the students, regular challenges (students being enrolled throughout the year), the educational gap within the classroom that each teacher faces daily, as well as interact with the students.

Following dismissal, Brothers were paired with students from the after school program to help them with reading and writing by creating a story of how the tiger got its stripes. While there were some most interesting stories regarding Florida and pirates or the White House, I don’t think that any could top a purple tiger eating carrots to turn orange that jumped into a black pond because Ashley Ericksen had turned him down for prom.

Dinner was hosted by Brent Sarver and his gracious roommates at their amazing house. A feast of lasagna, salad, and a Phi Sigma Pi blueberry cobbler were served. We had the opportunity to really interact with Teach For America corps members on a more informal level all while enjoying a little BCS Championship game.

Snow had started to fall today by the early afternoon. By dinner, it had actually started to show some accumulation on the ground, if only a dusting. This dusting, however, is significant to Atlanta, as they are not normally prepared to handle snow. As we returned from dinner, we started to keep an eye on the forecast and school closings. Late in the evening, I received a call from Brent, snow day! Some of our Brothers ended their night by enjoying the snow, with an impromptu snowball fight in front of the hotel in Midtown Atlanta. Others did so with a leftover cupcake, courtesy of Annette Arlint, Region Consultant, or with the BSC Championship game.

Until next time,


Day 6 and 7: January 8, 2010 and January 9, 2010

Gardening Supplies for Students

On Friday, I woke up at 6am and looked out my window to see how much snow had actually accumulated overnight. Aside from a slight dusting on sidewalks, everything looked pretty much clear. Thus, I fully expected that Heritage Elementary would be open, and our ABP corps would have another day of shadowing students in the classroom. But, this was not the case. Atlanta doesn't have any equipment to proactively combat snowfall (such as salt or sand trucks). The freshly fallen snow had turned into a thin sheet of ice on all the roadways, which made travel nearly impossible. Thus, Heritage Elementary was officially closed because of the treacherous conditions.

Jonah and I headed to Target early Friday morning for some much-needed toiletries. Being a Northerner (relatively speaking, at least), I figured that driving wouldn't be a problem. Cars were spinning out every which way, and the sheets of ice on the streets made stopping very difficult. No wonder why Atlanta is crippled whenever snow flurries come through!

Although we wouldn't be traveling to Heritage today, there was still a lot for our corps to do in the hotel. Over the course of the week, we received shipments of kid-size trowels, seeds, and kids' gardening gloves. The ABP corps broke up into teams and created "gift baskets" of gardening supplies for the school children. There was a lot of purple and gold ribbon, paint, crayons, and markers being used, but at the end, it was pretty neat to see the creative baskets each team made! One team painted boxes that looked like a grass lawn, while another team used the trowel handles and gloves to make "plants". We were going to present the baskets to the school today, but since classes were cancelled, the hotel graciously allowed us to store the baskets in their back office so that a TFA corps member from Heritage Elementary can up these items later next week.

After we created the gift baskets, the corps members made thank-you cards for each of the classrooms they shadowed, thanking the teacher and the students in allowing them to come into their classroom. As with the gardening gift baskets, a lot of the thank-you cards were quite creative. We also took time to reflect on our time here in Atlanta and share our best moments throughout the week.

After all was said and done, Krista and I presented each corps member with an "award" (a golden picture frame) to thank each corps member for their time during the 2010 Alternative Break Project, as well as a memento to remind everyone about their time in Atlanta. A few corps member thought of the great idea to have each corps member sign everyone else's picture frame -- truly making the frame a commemoration of the past week.

Later that evening, we all braved the bitter cold and headed over to The Varsity restaurant. The roads were still quite slick at the time, so we ended up taking the MARTA, Atlanta's mass-transit system. We were hoping that a lot of Alumni in the area would have attended, but understandably due to the road conditions, many couldn't come through. Thanks, though, to our Alpha Xi and Beta Zeta Brothers (as well as our Teach For America contact in Atlanta, Brent Sarver) who braved the weather and took the time to hang out with us! The atmosphere of The Varsity restaurant was awesome and the event attendees really had a great time getting to know each other better. (But, even though the photos below might suggest otherwise, the food at The Varsity was something to be desired.) All in all, an awesome closing to a very unexpected Friday.

Saturday was a sightseeing day for our corps members. The roads were still quite icy on Saturday morning, so unfortunately we were still only able to use the MARTA to get to our destinations today. Our ABP corps members broke up into small groups and self-toured the following locations:

  • CNN Center, home of the world's longest escalator and the site of my favorite morning show, Morning Express
  • The World of Coca-Cola, where Coke serves up 64 different types of soda from all across the world
  • The Georgia Aquarium, the world's largest indoor aquarium (and one of a few aquariums that have whale sharks)
  • The Bodies Exhibit

After we reconvened at the hotel later that evening, the corps members told me that they learned quite a bit on their sightseeing tour of Atlanta. Glad to hear that we were able to twist some scholarship into our week-long event!

All in all, our Brothers had a lot of fun on this trip. Although the trip was hampered by a freak snowstorm our corps members were able to tackle each individual problem head-on and make an impact to the students at Heritage Elementary to the best that we could. I'm really glad to say that our Brothers will take home a lot of positive memories from this experience. A huge thank you to all our ABP corps members for truly embodying what Phi Sigma Pi is all about!

Thanks for reading,

Ryan DeGuzman

In Conclusion…

Alternative Break Project, January 2010

Early in the week, Ms. Mahomes, Principal of Heritage Elementary, shared a saying with us that I feel is a perfect way to describe our time at Heritage Elementary, “Students don’t care about how much you know. They know how much you care.” Although we encountered obstacles throughout this trip, that never deterred everyone from finding creative solutions to those obstacles and giving it their all. Even if we didn’t always have the answers, especially in the classroom as I too found myself struggling to recall what independent and dependent clauses were, Brothers were always willing to sit and take the time to answer the students’ questions. We were able to give the students vegetable gardens to better learn about healthy eating and how plants grow and additionally provide a motivating presence on the campus as the “college kids.” Ms. Mahomes encouraged the students to pay it forward by getting involved in something similar when they get older.

This trip has been an experience I will never forget and carry with me always. I feel that it has given me just as much as we have given to Heritage Elementary. This trip has given me, to name a few:

  • Most importantly, a better understanding of how Teach for America impacts the classroom. Seeing firsthand how Mr. Sarver worked with his students and hearing from his peers about the impact that he has had on the school was a wonderful thing to see. His students have a desire to learn and the way he fuels that desire was great to see.
  • A greater ability to look past preconceptions. When we entered Heritage Elementary on Monday, a number of us were surprised to find how nice the facilities and resources were for the students since the school itself had been built within the past ten years. However, upon further discussions with the teachers and staff at the school, we learned more about the student demographics and how behind students are educationally. The most eye-opening example for me was a kindergarten student who had only been enrolled mid-October. When he entered the classroom, he struggled with pronouncing words and even had to be taught how to hold a pencil. The teacher asked his parents what he had been doing for the past five years and was told that he had been left at home with their seventeen year-old son. Since starting school, he’s made progress, but still has a way to go.
  • A greater respect for contractors and construction workers. Each day we would battle the weather as we dug our vegetable gardens and flower beds. This slowed our progress at times, but we were still able to leave with a sense of accomplishment. After all, if it was easy and gone completely to plan, it would not have been nearly as much fun doing it.
  • A stronger sense of Brotherhood. With enough Brothers in attendance to fill a small chapter, we bonded as we worked together toward a common goal; enjoyed the scenic ride to our locations (if you were in my van); learned about the aquarium, Coca-Cola, CNN, or the Bodies Exhibit; and just hung out with each other. I feel like everyone that I’ve met on this trip could have been a Brother in my own chapter and like I’ve known them all for way longer than just a week.

It was sad to say our farewells, but I’m very proud of what we’ve accomplished and the relationship that we’ve begun to build with Heritage Elementary. For those who participated this year, I hope that you take the lessons that you’ve learned and share them with your Chapters. For anyone thinking about applying next year, please do! If you’re unsure, talk to Brothers who have participated to answer any questions you may have. We look forward to seeing you next year!

FTK (For The Kids),