University of Southern California students spend spring break giving back to Orcas

  • Mon Mar 18th, 2019 1:30am
  • News

by Meredith M. Griffith

Sounder contributor

Last week, 15 students from the University of Southern California spent their spring break volunteering at Moran State Park, slogging its muddy trails to clear away massive amounts of debris torn down during this winter’s storms.

“We’re grateful to be learning. We don’t get to see a lot of trees in Los Angeles,” laughed group leader Colette Bartel.

The trip was part of the USC Volunteer Center’s “Alternative Breaks” program (, and the students were hand-picked from a pool of 50 applicants. They slept in a cabin at the park and enjoyed field trips to the local salmon hatchery, the co-op and the school in between their labor of love among the trees.

On March 11, the group visited Orcas Island Middle School teacher Laura Tidwell’s classroom, where most mingled with Tidwell’s students while one USC student took a group outdoors for a pickup basketball game.

“Oh my gosh, it was amazing,” said Bartel of the school visit.

She said the Orcas students described projects on which they are currently working, like building a solar car and writing a musical.

“We had such a discussion over dinner,” Bartel said. “All of my students just loved it so much, hearing perspectives of living on an island, how different it was, compared to us living in LA. We had never been to a school where the kids were that passionate about everything they were doing; we could not stop talking about … why these kids were so passionate.”

The USC students originally hail from locales as diverse as Mumbai, Colombia, Louisiana, Massachusetts and Texas, and their majors vary from environmental studies to neuroscience, computer science and international relations.

“We’ve decided that environmental issues are very interdisciplinary,” Bartel said. “It’s a really cool way to use all of our skill sets.”

Bartel, who helped build infrastructure at a school in Guatemala as part of a different Alternative Breaks trip last year, says the experience was life-altering, brought deeper self-awareness and broadened her perspective on life in valuable ways. An environmental studies major, she chose to lead this trip as a way to develop her leadership skills, adding, “I really want to create this experience for other students so they can have the same feelings that I had last year.”

Another student visiting with the group was Kate Klausner, who lived with her family in Victorian Valley on Orcas Island until she was 7 years old. Though her home base is now in Nashville, Tennessee, Klausner says her best friend to this day is another island girl who graduated from Orcas Island High School.

“It has been pretty surreal to combine my USC world with my Orcas one,” shared Klausner. “Not only is it always amazing to be back on the island, but to be able to help in any way I can is truly a humbling experience. I am so lucky to be able to share this island with my friends at school, and they all have been blown away by its beauty and its beautiful people! I am too!”

Speaking for the group, Bartel shared, “I just want to say thank you to the community. We feel super welcome. The whole community on Orcas is so connected, from the salmon hatchery, to the co-op, to the school, everyone knows everyone else. You guys are awesome. We love this town, and we’ll definitely be coming back.”