On Saturday, March 11, I woke up at four in the morning to board a van destined for Maryville, Tennessee. At the time, I was nervous about giving up a relaxing spring break in exchange for an alternative break filled with community service in the national forests of Tennessee. Yet, by the end of the week, I found that I wasn’t ready to leave my immersion group and the mountains behind for the flat humidity of Florida.
My group stayed at a facility called Once Upon A Time, which provides accommodations for college students and connects them with local community projects to provide service. Our first day of service took place at the Once Upon A Time facilities, consisting of tearing down a tree then chopping it into firewood. This allowed us to mingle with the other schools staying at Once Upon A Time as well; University of Miami, Ohio State, Rutgers, and University of Vermont.
Throughout the week we participated in other service projects in the Cherokee National Forest, Once Upon A Time Nature Preservation, and the Cherokee Snowbird Community. We spent time removing invasive plant species from the woods, such as honeysuckle and privet. In the Cherokee National Forest, we built hiking trails to make the area more accessible for campers.
The work was exhausting, and occasionally involved working in the freezing rain, but the difference and impact we made were immediately visible. We pulled massive piles of invasive plants out of the woods, and made a clear hiking trail across the forest. We won’t see the long-term effect we’ve had on the community, but the many volunteers and residents to follow surely will.
We had one day off in the middle of the week that our facilitators filled with incredible activities and experiences. Starting the day, our group travelled to The Lost Sea Adventure, which explores the Craighead Caverns in Tennessee. The caves contain 25% of the world’s supply of anthodite “flowers” and the second largest underground lake in the world. After exploring the caverns, we visited the Sequoyah museum and learned about the creator of the written Cherokee language. Later, my group drove out to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and hiked a short trail. As the day ended, we watched the sunset over the city at a viewpoint.
Our immersion ended on March 18 as we left Tennessee—at the much more reasonable time of eight-thirty in the morning. Prior to the trip, a lot of people thought my choice to give up a typical spring break for one filled with driving, cold weather, outhouses, and community service was crazy. Yet, as we drove away from Once Upon A Time, I knew that I just finished the best spring break I’d ever had.
The friends I made in my immersion group, the sites and experiences, and learning about the Cherokee culture made my spring break unforgettable. No amount of beaches or parties could outweigh the elation I felt while working in Tennessee, and if I could go back in time there’s no doubt in my mind I would do it all again.