Abigail Burkhardt is like most young Branford residents. She loves her hometown, grew up near the beach, played sports, held a job at a local business and eventually left home to broaden her horizons and pursue college.
Set to graduate from James Madison University this spring with a major in international affairs and two minors in Chinese business and asian studies, Burkhardt shares that she recently gave up her last college spring break to teach primary-age students in Treasure Beach, Jamaica.
Called the Alternative Spring Break program, James Madison University has been giving students a chance to give back during spring break for the past 20 years. Through Volunteer in Jamaica Opportunity Network, Burkhardt worked with young students teaching them basic education skills, helping with the assembly of playgrounds and planting fruit trees, flowers and aloe in recycled tire planters. The experience, Burkhardt details, was a lot of work and much different from how she learned at Branford’s when she was an elementary student.
An Indian Neck native, Burkhardt said Treasure Beach was one of the most relaxing places on earth and the experience was fulfilling in many ways. Trading in the chance to have a “wild” spring break to experience the culture and education system in Jamacia was something Burkhardt said she was hesitant to do at first but grateful that she did. During the experience, she said, “The teachers,” of the school, “served as the peacemakers, the tear-dryers, the cooks, cleaners, as well as the educators.”
Burkhardt who implores all Branford students to leave town to experience the world beyond their tight-knit groups, will return home this May after graduating, assume her summer job at and then ship off to China in August when she will become a teacher in another country once again.
Learn more about Burkhardt’s experience:
Branford Patch: So what are your ties to Branford?
Abigail Burkhardt: I have lived on Limewood Avenue in Indian Neck for the majority of my life. I'm a Tisko-kid, attended WIS [Francis Walsh Intermediate School], and then BHS [Branford High School] and graduated in 2008. [I] Love(d) living in Branford with the close-knit community by the water.
Branford Patch: What hobbies or sports did you participate in while living in Branford?
Abigail Burkhardt: While living in Branford I played rec softball and basketball growing up, and played volleyball all throughout high school and was the captain my senior year. I was also a part of model congress and the vice president of student council my senior year.
Branford Patch: Was this year the first time you gave up spring break to participate in this Alternative Break Program?
Abigail Burkhardt: This was the first time I had participated in an Alternative Spring Break (ASB) trip.
Branford Patch: What inspired you to do so?
Abigail Burkhardt: I knew my parents most likely wouldn't fund the typical reckless spring break, which I was hoping to go on, so one of my sorority sisters, who was leading another ASB trip to Coasta Rica, was really enthusiastic that I apply for the ASB lottery. I signed up for the lottery but still wasn't sure I wanted to do it – this being my last spring break – but after hearing about all of the trips and stories from post-trip goers, including many of my friends, I thought that this seemed really worthwhile and would provide insight into a culture and lifestyle that was unfamiliar to myself.
Branford Patch: Did friends think you were crazy to give up your week off to help others?
Abigail Burkhardt: My friends were a little disappointed that I wouldn't be going on a "wild" break, but they were not surprised. I usually just randomly sign up for things and do them. Humanitarian affairs are something that I am passionate about so this seemed like the perfect opportunity to spend my week off from school doing something proactive with my time.
Branford Patch: In a few sentences, what was Treasure Beach Jamaica like?
Abigail Burkhardt: The most relaxing, carefree place on earth. The people just 'chilled' all day, and all of their animals (goats, cows, pigs and roosters) roamed free all day, and would return home for the night. The air and water were clear, and despite the lack of modern conveniences like running water and continuous electricity, everything else was "not a problem."
Branford Patch: You were tasked with the job of assisting primary school students and promoting education. What was the experience like?
Abigail Burkhardt: It was a rewarding and fun task. I don't know how these teachers do what they do. There were only three teachers working with these kids and it was clear that a handful of them needed special attention as they would often run outside or steal others’ supplies, which they were lacking. Due to the young ages of these kids most of the day was spent outside in the hot sun letting them run around to burn off energy. While we were outside people from the community would walk or drive by and talk to us and praise these teachers who have been teaching there for 20-plus years each. One of the teachers had gone to that school as a child and has been teaching there since she graduated college. Her daughter is in college now studying education and will take her mother's job when she graduates.
Branford Patch: How did the classrooms of Treasure beach compare with those of Branford?
Abigail Burkhardt: Having the privilege of attending Tisko school, I don't even think I could compare it to that of the Parottee Basic school that we were assisting with. It was one small room of three-, four- and five-year-olds of differing ability levels, separated by only two short chalkboards. There was barely enough room to fit everyone in and there was no air conditioning or anything reminiscent of modern technology. The teachers served as the peacemakers, the tear-dryers, the cooks, cleaners, as well as the educators. After only four days I found this to be extremely exhausting and all I really did was play with the kids and teach them how to write their names. The school lacked such simple supplies like chalk, paper, markers, and it was clear to see that both the school uniforms, shoes, and backpacks – even some notebooks – had been passed down to them from older siblings. There were also no bookshelves for any of the books or supplies so much of the stuff in the classroom was in piles on tables, or under tables. Unlike Branford, where there are buses for the kids, most of these children would either walk or take a taxicab home.
Branford Patch: Would you recommend this type of spring break to others?
Abigail Burkhardt: Absolutely! This is something that you can do at any point in your life, but I think it would be much harder to fit in your schedule as you become more established. For most college kids, each weekend is like a mini spring break, and it was nice to get the chance to do something 'alternative' and to meet other kids that I otherwise would not have. Also due to the small size of the group (of about 11) we were able to hangout with the locals and find out more about Jamaica and what it is really like to live there. I wish I had done an ASB trip sooner because I would have definitely liked the chance to be a trip leader.
Branford Patch: What are your plans post-graduate? Do you ever have plans to return to Branford?
Abigail Burkhardt: I am going to teach English in China starting in August of 2012, and after that I hope to do something with the Foreign Service or the UN. I will return home to Branford mid-May and will most likely be working at my summer job at Lenny's!
Branford Patch: For students graduating from high school this year, what's your one piece of college advice?
Abigail Burkhardt: My one piece of advice would be to get out of Branford. You can always come back, but if you don't go when you have the ultimate opportunity, you'll never leave. If you try to go away and it's not for you, I think we all know Branford would love to have all of us back, but the world is a bigger place than our tiny beachside town. Going away makes you appreciate it that much more when you get the chance to visit home again.