Alumna Emily Kraeske (‘18) is one of more than 2,500 UT students who have made positive impacts on communities through UT’s VOLbreaks program.
As co-student coordinator of the program her senior year, Kraeske participated in service projects including trail maintenance in Great Smoky Mountains National Park and improving food access for people in North Carolina. She now works as a community engagement coordinator at the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont.
UT’s VOLbreaks program began as TeamVOLS in 1993 and was later called the Alternative Breaks program. The name changed to VOLbreaks in 2018. Participants travel to locations around the country, working in groups of students, faculty, and staff.
After Kraeske’s friends told her about their great experiences on alternative breaks, she decided to get involved. On the first of her four breaks, she worked with a group helping agencies in rural Mississippi with community outreach.
“Since I have been involved with the program, I have come to see the value in all types of service,” Kraeske says. No matter the task, “the most important thing is that I am doing something to help the people I am serving.”
On a trip to Alabama, Kraeske led a group that finished home repairs for a single mother of two boys. The family hadn’t been able to live in part of their trailer due to black mold.
“Our work that day completed that project, and it was so amazing to see how grateful the homeowner was,” Kraeske says. “She told us her story and detailed every hardship and obstacle. It was so powerful for us to hear how difficult and different her life was from ours and to see the positive impact we contributed to.”
During spring break 2018, groups traveled to Chicago, Savannah, Cincinnati, Jacksonville, Atlanta, Iowa, and Mississippi. Their service focused on: animal welfare, accessibility awareness, civil rights, food security, youth development, wealth distribution, and immigrant rights.
The total value of VOLbreaks service hours so far is estimated at $1.2 million.
“This program is one way the university engages students in collaborative community service,” says Jessica Wildfire, director of the Center for Leadership and Service, which took over the program in 2012. “The service increases the participant’s awareness of social issues and helps the communities they serve.”
Services valued at
While he was a graduate student, Keith Carver led three VOLbreaks teams: in Florida following Hurricane Andrew, in Illinois after a devastating flood, and in Boston working with inner-city youth.
Twenty-five years later as chancellor of UT Martin, Carver continues using the servant-leadership skills he learned then.
“The trips I helped coordinate certainly got me out of my comfort zone and broadened my understanding of true societal needs,” Carver says.
Although the original trips began and ended during school breaks, the VOLbreaks program experience is now much broader. Students take part in pre-trip meetings, educational opportunities, and post-trip reorientation events.
“We believe adding these additional components to the program encourages students to continue developing as leaders for our campus while also engaging them as active citizens in the Knoxville community when they return,” says Wildfire. “Our hope is that students take on the lifelong commitment to serving their community wherever that may be, and the program is just the launching point for that engagement.”
Retention Rate among Participants