College students learn they make a difference during Alternative Spring Break in El Paso


Emily Tulloch hammers a nail into a house frame during Alternative Spring Break in El Paso in 2011.

One short week spent building houses on the U.S. / Mexico border in El Paso taught 21-year-old Emily Tulloch a lot about herself.

“It showed for me that it doesn’t matter how old I am. I don’t need to be a professional yet. I can still make an impact on a community or someone’s life by doing something as simple as being informed and volunteering a little bit of my time,” said the Washington University junior who came to El Paso from St. Louis in 2011 to join a group of college students from across the country for the United Way of El Paso County’s Alternative Spring Break.

More college students will soon be learning similar lessons as they take up the saws and hammers for Alternative Spring Break 2013 March 17-23 where their labor will help construct low-cost homes for needy El Paso families.

“It was incredible,” Tulloch said. “We just built one house, but we also worked on painting another house and doing roofing on a third house.”

In addition to building houses, Alternative Spring Break participants will learn about the culture and history of El Paso, a unique and vibrant community that dates back to the 16th century.

“I had no idea that it was literally on the border of Juarez,” Tulloch said, adding that although El Paso was not the Southern-style, cowboy Texas she expected, it was “much better actually.”

The program included visits to UT El Paso, homeless shelters and community centers.

“We also got to do some cool things like hiking the last day and having some authentic food like empanadas and tacos and stuff – menudo. It was a lot of fun.”

In addition to advising first-timers to bring plenty of sunscreen, Tulloch also said to participants should look forward to opening up to each other and making new, solid friendships.

“There are people from all walks of life. It’s really cool to see other people passionate about their communities and volunteer work.”

Participants in the Alternative Spring Break 2013 program will stay at the Ysleta Lutheran Mission and work with the Lower Valley housing corporation. El Paso , while ranked as the safest city in the United States, is also home to some of the poorest ZIP codes in the country where 25 percent of the country’s population of 800,000 people lives below the federal poverty level. Many are in living in sub-standard housing conditions

“You completely get out what you put in,” Tulloch said. “If you are complaining about staying up late and getting up early and doing all this work in the sun,  it’s not going  to be fun for you. But if you embrace everything – like really long days – it’ll be a great experience.”

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