Spring break, Columbia College style

CC group picture, Nantahala National Forest

South Padre Island.

Las Vegas.

Daytona and Miami Beach.

Somewhere in the sticks, Appalachia.

Which of these spring break destinations don’t belong on this list?

The answer for Kim Craig '12, Columbia College Student Government Association president, is the first five. She and 12 other Columbia College students, plus Luke Akers, graduate assistant for Student Activities and Leadership, drove nearly 12 hours one way to clear brush, build a deck, shore up steps, brighten seniors’ and elementary school children’s days and generally experience Cherokee and Appalachian culture in a tough but rewarding week in the heart of the Smoky Mountains. This alternative spring break trip was coordinated and sponsored by Student Activities and Leadership, a department of the Division of Student Affairs.

Their home base, a ranch called Once Upon A Time, is an approved host site for Breakaway, a national nonprofit organization linking college students with communities to perform service projects addressing a variety of social, cultural, and environmental needs. Because of its location, Once Upon a Time focuses on the Eastern Band of the Cherokee and rural Appalachians and environmental clean-up in Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Nantahala National Forest. The Columbia College group was joined by two other student groups, both from California.

“We were so busy!” says Craig. “Every day was so jam-packed we were wiped out each night. But they [the Once Upon A Time hosts] really showed us the full life of the community.”

And the flora. Clearing fast-growing and highly invasive honeysuckle and sweet gum was grueling work. The students wore long-sleeved shirts and pants and still got scratched up by blackberry and other prickly bushes. Two weeks later, Craig still sports cuts and scars.

Some of Craig’s other highlights of the week include:
Removing honeysuckle vines
  • Visiting the Rocky Branch Community Club, a mountain music mecca. “I’m a country girl at heart but these people were way more country than me,” Craig says. “Each room had a different group of musicians.”
  • Making and canning blackberry jam –no scratches sustained.
  • Helping finish steps on a rugged piece of property linking two older women’s houses. The path between the houses is so steep, Craig says, they need a rope in winter to haul themselves back and forth between houses.
  • Visiting the Snowbird Senior Citizens Center, home to Cherokee, white and black alike, for a craft project, making hummingbird out of pine cones. Or try to. “Mine didn’t look too good,” Craig admits. “But the seniors loved having us there. They gave us big hugs when we left.”
  • Playing the fish game. This old Cherokee game is played by two teams, one all men and the other all women. The men have miniature lacrosse sticks with which they try to scoop up a ball and hit a wooden fish mounted on a 15-foot pole while the women do almost anything to stop them. This curious game is a stylized Cherokee courting ritual, where adrenaline-pumped men prove they can play hard and not hurt women, thus proving themselves suitable matches.
  • Visiting such iconic sites as Great Smoky Mountains National Park; the Lost Sea, billed as the largest underground lake in the United States; the spectacular Bald River Falls (“We waded in,” says Craig. “The water was so cold! My feet went numb”); and Cades Cove, probably the first settlement in the Smokies, with restored cabins, churches, barns, gristmill and cemeteries.
  • Telling ghost stories around the bonfire. Craig says she could tell the California students were just making it up but that the Columbia College contingent freaked out the Californians with tales of the Gray Lady.
In short, the Columbia College students experienced immersion into one of this country’s most complex and forgotten communities, if only for a week.

“It’s encouraging to see students making a difference in someone’s life instead of just lying on a beach,” says Craig. “I felt like we really did something.”

Columbia College students have been making a difference for years. Groups have also trekked down to Louisiana to repair homes in Louisiana in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and in Kentucky recently.

“There is no word for sorry in Cherokee,” Craig says, who is graduating in less than a month with a bachelor’s degree in human services and says she’d prefer a job in nonprofit management . “I don’t want to look back at my time here at Columbia College and be sorry for opportunities I missed to help others.”