Student volunteers address homelessness in Washington, D.C. during Alternative Break opportunity

Sophomore Liwei Chen talks about her experience volunteering in Washington, D.C. with Kernodle Center for Civic Life during an Alternative Break experience this past spring break.

Students in the spring break Alternative Break trip to Washington, D.C. addressing homelessness.

The Kernodle Center for Civic Life has been providing service and volunteer opportunities to Elon students since 1995, leaving them with unforgettable memories and valuable lessons. Among these opportunities are the Alternative Breaks, immersive service experiences aimed at addressing pressing domestic and global social issues in new communities.

Liwei Chen ’25, an applied mathematics and statistics, who went on the Spring Alternative Break trip to Washington D.C. focused on housing and homelessness said her passion for social issues, particularly homelessness, drove her to participate in the trip to the nation’s capital.

“Since I never went last year due to the pandemic, I jumped at the chance to go this year. It was a good opportunity to be able to explore a place that I’ve never been and learn about homelessness in the capital,” she said.

During the trip, Chen and her team worked to package and distribute food to displaced communities, including packing lunches for elementary schools in food deserts and visiting Central Union Mission, a shelter that houses homeless people.

“I was surprised by how little food they have to live on, even from donations. It was just a few canned goods,” she said.

As an international student from China, she noticed the number of people she would consider part of her community in these homeless communities. “I was also surprised to see the amount of old Asian people who were homeless in the D.C. area. Mostly minorities who were homeless in these spaces.”

Despite the challenges, Chen found the experience to be valuable, both in terms of the impact they made and the connections they formed.

“The teamwork we created on the trip was amazing. Doing work together and seeing the impact we left on the community was a great experience. We spent a lot of time getting to know each other and there were really fast connections,” she said.

The trip also taught her some important life lessons.

“I learned to respect others more. Not everyone has the same background you have. Be kind to other people, because everyone has their own stories. Reach out and connect with people outside of your community, you never know who you will meet. And, of course, cherish your food! Don’t waste it. Those people only have a little bit of food,” she said.

Overall, Chen felt that the trip was a valuable experience that helped her grow as a person.

“It was a really valuable trip. I gained friends and experiences that I will never forget,” she said.