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Students spend spring break serving others

For most USF students, last week’s spring break was a chance to enjoy some much-needed mid-semester relaxation.

But for the 200 student participants in the Alternative Spring Break (ASB) program, the vacation was filled with service and volunteer work.

Designed to provide students the opportunity to devote their spring break to volunteerism, ASB is used by numerous educational institutions throughout the nation.

USF has participated in the program since 2001, and this year students chose from 19 destinations, including 18 domestic locales and one in Costa Rica.

Amy Simon, director of the Center for Civic Engagement and Volunteerism, said the trips were broken into six primary work interests: health and AIDS, senior citizens, poverty and hunger, the environment, immigrants and farm workers and youth and education.

Participants paid $150 to $400 to cover the costs of travel, gas, lodging and food. Some who couldn’t afford the fee held fundraisers to help raise additional money for trips with larger budgets, Simon said. Most students stayed at churches, though others camped, stayed in hostels, Boys and Girls Clubs or where they volunteered.

Simon said the program allows students to immerse themselves in the environment in which they have chosen to work and witness first-hand important social issues.

“Many students return to ASB year after year because of its impact,” Simon said.

Elisa McQueen, a senior, has participated in three ASB trips and said they have all been meaningful and productive.

“I wanted to do something both fun and productive during my time off,” she said. “Volunteer work is an essential part of my life now. It’s a critical part of my being involved and connected with my community, both locally and nationally, and I will continue to be active even after I graduate.”

This year, McQueen was a student leader of “Women in the Windy City,” a trip in which students worked with Deborah’s Place, the largest provider of housing for homeless women in Chicago, to tutor and break the cycle of homelessness for women in the city.

Senior Theresa Vergo was also one of the leaders for the “Windy City” trip and a former participant in ASB. She said that even though her initial interest in the program was to put it on her medical school application, she has come to value volunteer work as an important personal and social experience. She said her 2007 ASB trip to New York City – as a provider of meals for terminally ill people – was the first vacation in which she didn’t want to return home.

“After going once, I was hooked,” Vergo said. “My site leaders were amazing and really helped me connect the issue on a personal basis. It was great to see that we were actually making a difference in people’s lives.”

Senior Staci Shepard was a leader for “Real World: Life on the Streets of D.C.,” an ASB project dedicated to working with homeless adults and children in Washington D.C.’s largest homeless shelter, the Community for Creative Non-Violence.

“I keep going because they are powerful experiences,” Shepard said. “I have loved every trip that I have gone on.”

She said the D.C. trip was especially illuminative because of direct interaction with the city’s homeless population. There were residents from a variety of backgrounds, and she was told of people from reputable professions, including doctors, lawyers and judges, who had lived in the shelter in the past.

“(It was) very eye-opening to the issue of homelessness and how anyone could really end up in this situation,” she said.

Gayatri Nair, a senior and leader of “Gator Haters in the Glades,” a trip dedicated to addressing the environmental concerns in the Florida Everglades, said ASB was a combination of her two passions – volunteer work and travel.

“I saw (ASB) as a chance to get out of my comfort zone and do something different,” she said. “It is an adventure to spend every waking moment for a whole week with other students who are practically strangers.”

While the Everglades trip was hard work, Nair said it was also exciting and fun, and that being part of the program has made all the difference in her college experience.

“Not only was the service very rewarding and instantly gratifying, but the group of people that I was lucky enough to lead were also nothing short of spectacular in terms of working and having fun,” she said.

Tiffany Hilton is a junior and first-time participant in the ASB program. As a leader of “Boston Beans,” a trip in which students volunteered to sort and serve food for needy individuals with HIV in the city, Hilton said it was amazing to experience volunteer work in a new way.

“There is a difference in volunteering for a few hours in Tampa, but it is a new and exciting experience to go to another city and see the issues they are fighting and being able to help them in any way, shape or form,” she said.

Hilton said she thinks her trip was a test of character which taught her not only about the people she met and worked with, but about herself.

“Volunteer work is very important because it keeps me very grounded and makes me realize all the time that I am truly blessed,” she said. “Volunteering also enables me to hear people’s stories and break down any stereotypes or biases.”

This year, USF added a new trip to its ASB line-up called “Empower Me,” in which students worked in North Philadelphia with the Empowerment Group, a not-for-profit organization which boosts economic growth by cultivating entrepreneurship in urban areas. Sophomore Gaelle Pierre, one of the group leaders, said that the experience highlighted important social issues, including education.

“This trip has really shown me that there are many communities within the United States that have been suffering with a continuous cycle of violence, poverty and insufficient school funding,” she said. “Not only do I have a better understanding about these issues as a whole, but I can see the reasoning behind (their) effects on the children and parents.”

Pierre said the way ASB trips allow students to directly observe issues in a particular location provides insight into how they might affect other communities, which is very rewarding.

“There are many students who don’t volunteer because they may not see a reason to do so . . . but it gives students a new perspective on life so that when they come back from a week of service they can implement what they have learned in their surrounding communities,” she said.

Simon said many ASB participants return from their trips eager to get more involved not only in the community, but on campus as well.

“They have learned first-hand about social issues and communities where they have immersed themselves and return motivated to make a difference,” she said. “Alternative Spring Break is a week that can change a life.”