Alternative spring breaks bring 170 students to six cities

More than 170 GW students and staff members spent spring break traveling across the country and volunteering on alternative spring break trips.

The participants traveled to six cities across the U.S., restoring and reconstructing cities, homes and schools in Greensburg, Kan. and New Orleans; volunteering at a juvenile detention center in Miami; and addressing poverty issues in Appalachia, W.Va., Atlanta, and the Cherokee Nation in Tahlequah, Okla.

The hours the students completed will go toward Michelle Obama’s service challenge, but University spokeswoman Michelle Sherrard said the total number of hours completed have not yet been tabulated. With just more than one month to go before Obama’s challenge comes to a close, the GW community has now logged 86,209 hours, leaving the community with less than 14,000 hours to go before completing the challenge.

The 96 students who traveled to New Orleans helped restore a charter school damaged by Hurricane Katrina and helped rebuild homes for those who lost their houses to the violent hurricane.

“This year we not only worked with Habitat for Humanity for four days, but volunteered at two different [Knowledge is Power Program] Charter Schools,” said Deirdre Clark, a group leader who returned for the third year in a row to New Orleans for the alternative spring break program. “After Katrina, there was a large movement to reform the education system in the New Orleans area and, as a result, several charter schools have moved in, including KIPP. Our group helped put up blackboards, clean the yard and organize supply closets and files.”

Though the leaders said the trip was successful, it was not without a hitch. On March 17, halfway through the trip, a bus driver carrying 52 students back to their lodging accommodations was pulled over and arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence of alcohol, University spokeswoman Michelle Sherrard said.

William Torres, president of the DC Trails charter and bus company, the employer of the bus driver, said the incident was isolated, adding that the employee accused of driving under the influence of alcohol is an “outstanding employee” with no complaints filed against him.

Despite the mishap, students interviewed from all of the spring break trips said volunteering was a rewarding experience, allowing them to not only give back to those less fortunate than them, but learn from the people to whom they dedicated their week-long break.

Sarah Davis, a group leader on the Cherokee Nation trip in Oklahoma, said having dinner with a Cherokee family was the highlight of her group’s trip.

“We enjoyed hog, venison, catfish, wild mushrooms, potatoes, wild onions, Indian fry bread, and corn bread along with the good company of their family,” Davis said. “It was a great experience and out of their kindness we got to learn a lot more about the Cherokee family and lifestyle, especially their kind, giving spirit.”

Matthew Francolino, a leader on the Atlanta trip, said his experience helped rid him of stereotypes of homeless people.

“This past week, we learned that the stereotypes that portray homeless people are grossly false,” Francolino said. “We learned that for many of these families, homelessness was the unfortunate consequence of a series of random or unfortunate circumstances – not because they were lazy or caught up with drugs or alcohol. We also learned that service is not an activity, but a lifestyle and one that we ought to seek for ourselves.”

Two-time alternative break participant and first-time group leader Charles Guinn, who spent his break in Greensburg, Kan., said being a leader was a different, but just as gratifying experience as being a regular participant.

“I felt like a proud parent in the sense that I derived so much happiness just from seeing the smiles on my participants’ faces,” Guinn said. “When they felt accomplished I felt accomplished, and their spirit just magnified my happiness throughout the trip. Despite being a participant last year and feeling that there was no way I could ever have an experience equal to mine on the 2009 Greensburg Trip, this trip was separately and distinctly a beautiful and equally meaningful trip.”

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