A Break to Remember: Alternative Service Experience Goes to the Elephant Sanctuary

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Alternative Service Experience at the Elephant Sanctuary
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Sophomore literature major Sarah Chao has always had a soft spot in her heart for elephants. "I've loved elephants since I was young, and how big they were, and how majestic," Chao said. "I've been to a circus once in my life, and it never settled with me, bringing animals in and making them do tricks for our entertainment. So, I wanted to make a difference, I wanted to change that."

Chao got her chance during the 2017 fall break at UNC Asheville when she went on the Alternative Service Experience trip to The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, which provides care to elephants formerly held in zoos or circuses. It was actually Chao's second year spending her fall break helping at the sanctuary; this time, she returned as a student leader.

"I did not want to be a leader at first, because I thought I was too young to be one," Chao admitted. "But my peer mentor last year encouraged me to do it, she was like 'I see leadership in you from last year.' I turned out to love it because I love planning and organizing things."

Part of that planning and organizing included finding inexpensive housing and maintaining a food budget in line with the trip's philosophy of service.

"For ASE trips, we participate in experiential education, learn to act selflessly and live alternatively. That means we attempt to keep a small carbon footprint, as well as live on the poverty line. We get the chance to experience living and eating minimally," Chao explained. "Peer leaders try to find free or inexpensive housing, and work on a food budget that provides approximately $1 for breakfast, $2 for lunch, $3 for dinner. In addition, our goal for each participant is to be vegetarian on this trip!"

Even with the small amount of money allotted for food, Chao said the group succeeded in staying on budget.

Chao and the student volunteers from UNC Asheville helped with a variety of tasks around the Elephant Sanctuary, from clearing fence lines to cleaning office space.

"We also made enrichment treats for the elephants," Chao said. "We got these old car tires, we cut down some bamboo trees, trimmed the leaves, cut some of the actual bamboo off and stuck them in the tires, and then put the leaves all around. So, it's like a little game for the elephants to try and poke around, eat the leaves, get all the bamboo and stuff."

Chao said the work was fun, but challenging and at times physically demanding.

"You have to be in that mindset, of this is not about you, this is about the service you're doing, and how you're helping the elephants, helping the sanctuary, helping the people who work at the sanctuary," she said. In the end, seeing the progress they'd made felt very satisfying, Chao said.

"It made me happy, and I feel really fulfilled," Chao said. "Like I'm doing something productive."

For information about the 2018 Alternative Spring Break, including trips based around civil rights in Tennessee and Alabama, hunger and homelessness in Washington D.C., and leadership at Disney, visit highsmithunion.unca.edu/alternative-spring-break.