My Alternative Breaks Journey
Photo: Rena Adair and other Bennion Center students on their AIDS/HIV Alternative Break in 2017.
I went on my first Alternative Break in spring of 2017 to Hollywood, CA focusing on HIV and AIDS. I went on the trip expecting to do service but not knowing what an Alternative Break was other than that. I had so many preconceived notions. Looking back now I can see how self-righteous I was in my approach to underserved populations. I viewed so many things in a stunted black and white perspective.
On our second night of the trip, we went to do a needle exchange. A needle exchange is where individuals can come to a designated place and exchange used needles for new ones. We gave them narcan, clean water, a clean cap (cooker) to make heroin in, and a turnequit. To put it lightly, I was extremely conflicted. We were essentially giving supplies to individuals so they could make more drugs. More harmful drugs. Drugs that, I had been taught all my life, were harmful and dangerous. In my mind, people that were hooked on drugs were to be pitied or scorned. In my mind they were abused as children or they neglected everything in their life because of their addiction to these drugs and deserved what they got. They were not to be trusted, and somewhere in my warped thinking and without even realizing it, not to be treated as human.
There were two long-term volunteers who taught us what to do. We stood behind tables laden with supplies, next to an old van waiting for folx to come. During the down time, they talked about their past, their personal hells and eventually, how they got involved with LA Community Health Project, the organization doing the needle exchange. They talked about the ‘regulars’ who came to exchange weekly. They spoke of the touching and heart wrenching moments they’ve had while volunteering. I remember being struck by how much love they had for the individuals and the work they were involved in. I remember feeling very humbled by hearing one hellish experience after another. I remember watching a man come, drop his used needles into a bucket and bow his head in shame when I asked him ‘how many?’ (As in, how many used needles was he turning in so I knew how many new ones to give him.) I don’t remember his answer, other than it was higher than other numbers I’d heard that night. I don’t remember what he was wearing or even really what he looked like. I do remember the feeling of shame. As much as he looked like he might be feeling shame, I felt it. I felt it then and I had felt it at previous times in life. I knew that I too had bowed my head as he did, and answer a question I was not proud of, wishing I could disappear. In that moment of a shared emotion, that shame I felt, grew to encompass the realization that this very human individual didn’t not deserve my pity or scorn. It was very possible that they were hurting and feeling broken. I have felt broken for the past twenty years. I realize that his experiences and mine are drastically different, but that human emotion connected us and made me realize that he is as human, if not more so, than I am.
That trip challenged me in so many ways that it took quite some time to process just how my heart had changed. The life I had been living before the trip seemed blurry to me now. It didn’t quite seem to fit like it did before. As I examined my life and reflected upon the multiple paradigm shifts I’d experienced, I realized my life begged for a new direction.
Now, I have just returned from my sixth Alternative Break and I am still learning how to implement change in my life based off of impactful experiences - but it is those changes, that choosing of a new direction, that helps me get reoriented in my life. I am not proud of where I started, but I’ve progressed and changed. I know I’m only in the middle of my journey but I feel more focused and compassionate.