A month before leaving for a weeklong service trip to Wheeling, West Virginia, Israel Ibarra, MCAS ‘23, was having doubts. The friend he was supposed to go with had dropped out, but Ibarra had already raised hundreds of dollars to cover the trip’s cost. There was no backing out. As his doubts kept surfacing, he wondered, What did I get myself into?
Appa Volunteers, more commonly known as Appa, is one of Boston College’s many service-immersion trips. Run by Campus Ministry, Appa provides students the opportunity to work with, “under-resourced populations in the United States via shared service and direct encounter.” Every year over spring break, the program sends students all over the country to both urban and rural areas throughout the South and Appalachia. Students participate in service activities from serving in soup kitchens to constructing houses with Habitat for Humanity.
In 1979, Gregg Cassin, BC ‘80, helped organize a trip with 19 of his classmates to Vanceburg, Kentucky over spring break. This trip was the foundation for what is now Appa. Cassin, an HIV survivor and advocate for HIV and LGBTQ+ communities, told The Gavel in 2016 that he hopes Appa becomes “one of the greatest social justice seeking on-campus communities for this campus.”
The danger with any service trip, especially one that lasts less than a full week, is that they can easily feed into “voluntourism.” The term combines “volunteer” and “tourism,” and refers to people doing good while traveling. This framework of doing service often perpetuates patronizing ideas of white saviorism and leaves a community with little to no tangible benefits, since these volunteer efforts are usually done in the short-term by people who do not have the specific skills to effectively address these problems.
Ibarra, a junior at BC studying biochemistry on the pre-med track, hails from Southern California and usually doesn’t travel home for spring break because of the distance. When he first considered going on Appa in November, he was intrigued not only because of the timing, but because of the service and learning opportunities it provided. “I just really liked how hands-on it was,” he said.
On a long drive from Boston to Rochester, New York to meet up with his friend’s family for Thanksgiving, his friend asked him what he thought about trips like Appa feeding into voluntourism.
“I had no words,” Ibarra said of his response to his friend’s question. “I kind of brushed it off, and then as we got closer to the trip…I was just like, ‘Oh my God, what did I just sign up for?’”
Once Ibarra arrived at Wheeling, his panic subsided. Before the trip, he researched “green flags” for service trips to ensure that he would not be engaging in the problematic process of voluntourism. “One of the words that they tossed around was an immersion, or a deep immersion into the community,” he said. “That's very essential when you're going to do volunteer work in a place that you're not familiar with.”
On Appa trips, the site coordinator, who plans the daily activities, is the key to immersing the students in the local community. Ibarra credited his coordinator, Tom Breiding, as being very intentional about truly connecting BC students to Wheeling residents. When not coordinating service trips, Breiding is the musician in residence for the United Mine Workers of America. He writes and performs songs honoring and uplifting working-class laborers in America, especially in places like Wheeling.
Ibarra and his group were told on the trip that West Virginia is said to be the poorest state in America, but the richest in natural resources. Wheeling, at the nexus of the state’s borders with Ohio and Pennsylvania, is a coal mining city. Its residents receive both the revenue (although most of the revenue goes straight to the coal companies) and the detriments of the coal mining industry—Ibarra’s group spoke with one coal miner who makes a salary of over $100,000, and a woman who developed thyroid cancer after moving to Wheeling, despite being healthy her entire life. “A lot of people are anti-coal, but it’s so much more complicated than that,” Ibarra said. Despite the environmental degradation and health problems, the community is completely dependent on the coal industry because of the lack of other industries that could sustain the West Virginian economy. Farming is out of the question because of the mountainous terrain, and tourism is unlikely because of the effects of years of mining. At the end of their conversation, the coal miner pulled out a map of Wheeling, showing mining companies’ plans through the year 2048. “These coal mining companies are going to be extracting every last bit of coal from this mountain,” Ibarra said. “They're not going to leave a single thing behind. There's just no stopping these coal mining companies. They're too powerful. They’re way beyond being stopped by anybody.”
Ibarra and the rest of his group spoke with community members trying to offset the poverty and environmental degradation brought on by coal mining. After their immersion, this is where their service came in: their work at each organization they visited freed up time for these organizers to continue to tangibly attend to these complex problems being faced by their communities.
The Soup Kitchen, one such organization, expands beyond just providing a hot meal for Wheeling residents. The Soup Kitchen organization receives numerous donations from retail stores of leftover products to donate to soup kitchen attendees, and they regularly apply for government funding to purchase amenities like boots and coats for children. The volunteers in Ibarra’s group helped executive director Becky Shilling-Rodocker clear out boxes to make room for more donations.
Another organization, the Wheeling Food Hub, is looking to address food insecurity differently—by growing produce and selling it in a building that will soon be completed in downtown Wheeling. On a modestly-sized piece of land, they have a climate-controlled tent where they grow kale, lettuce, and other fruits and vegetables to offset the detrimental effects of food deserts in West Virginia and improve access to healthy groceries. The Food Hub will also provide a communal kitchen and resources for local farmers and food entrepreneurs. Ibarra’s group laid compost to promote the organization’s apple tree growth, and those apples will eventually end up being sold to Wheeling residents.
By the end of the trip, Ibarra wanted to know how to not leave his experience in Wheeling behind him after one week. Another marker of voluntourism is limiting involvement to just that trip, leaving the community effectively unchanged. Ibarra turned to a resident working on the policy side of anti-coal activism. “He was saying, ‘You know, it’s a great question,” Ibarra said. “One of the things that I just tell everybody is just do your best to share whatever you learn here, with the people that you meet.’”
To continue the conversations he began on Appa, Ibarra is now committed to sharing his experience with his family, friends, and anyone who will listen. “I felt like, at some points during the trip, it wasn't even about necessarily finding the exact correct solution,” Ibarra said. “It was more about just hearing some people out.”
Toward the end of the trip, Breiding urged Ibarra’s group to spend some time together recreationally. Initially, they resisted because their intention for the trip was not to have fun but to do something meaningful. He convinced them to drive to Ohiopyle, a state park in Pennsylvania, for a hike. “That was an incredible, incredible way to close the trip,” said Ibarra, “just because it really allowed us to view and appreciate Appalachia for what it was intended to be and all of its beauty and all of its glory.”
Perhaps the questions surrounding Appa and voluntourism don’t have such a simple answer—certainly there can be issues with unskilled college students building houses, or adding to a rotating door of childcare volunteers that children become attached to and have to say goodbye to after a week. Leveraging existing community structures and resources is the key to ensuring that volunteer work is sustainable and beneficial in the long term. If service is done intentionally and mindfully, and if it is guided by immersion into what a community already is doing for itself, it has the potential to be a truly transformative experience for everyone involved.