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US Students Trade Fun in the Sun for Volunteer Work - 2003-03-28

Young people tend to believe they can change the world. And that is exactly what an increasing number of college students in the United States are trying to do during their spring break. Those young men and women forgo the traditional "fun week in the sun" for a more substantive experience.

Instead of heading to the beach like many of his friends at Allegheny College in Pennsylvania, Matt Persella, 20, decided to do something more meaningful this year over spring break:

He's spending the week working with a non-profit organization called Food and Friends, preparing, packaging and delivering meals and groceries to people living with HIV/AIDS and other life challenging illnesses in the Washington area.

"I have had a lot of fun here already so far. So, I know when I go back to school I'll meet my friends who went to the beach and had fun, but I had fun and also made a difference," he says.

Mr. Persella isn't alone. This spring, thousands of American college students decided to dedicate their vacation time to volunteer work in communities across the United States and abroad.

"It could be building trails across riverbeds, constructing homes, teaching children in the inner city schools, or it could be delivering meals to people living with HIV/AIDS," he explains.

Dan McCabe is the executive director of Break Away, a non-profit organization in Tallahassee, Florida, that matches teams of college or high school students with community service projects during their vacation breaks.

"We've got 60 chapter schools across the country, from coast to coast. We work with over 250 different non-profit organizations that can utilize our volunteers," he says. "And certainly we have a lot of both local and national business partnerships to help students go to these trips, to help non-profits to effectively utilize the volunteers and to help the national Break Away office conduct its training sessions and outreach."

Students who sign up for an alternative break make more than a one-week commitment. Mr. McCabe says pre-trip preparations may take months, sometimes as long as a year, to learn about the specific needs of the people the students will serve.

"They learn about the communities they will be visiting. They learn about the social issues they will be dealing with, both on a local level and on a global scale," he says. "This can help them get more involved in these issues when they return from their alternative break experiences. They also have training in things like first aid, conflict resolution, and team building, working with diverse population."

Break Away executive director, Dan McCabe believes the alternative breaks are another source of higher education, because students learn about issues such as literacy, poverty, racism, hunger, homelessness and the environment. They also learn how to finance their one-week trips.

"The students, in general, fundraise all of the costs of their trips," he explains. "They eat peanut butter and jelly, sleep on church floors the entire week, which may not sound like too much fun. But you will be surprised, students come back not only having memorable fun experiences, but really having a tremendous impact on their career and personal goals."

Matt Persella and the nine other students from Allegheny College who are also volunteering with Food and Friends agree.

"I think it is a positive thing. I think a lot of kids go home for spring break and end up doing anything or watching a lot TV. Here I can feel pretty good about myself. I think I will definitely do an alternative spring break next year," says one student.

"I've had a good time on these trips," another agrees. " I got to meet a lot of people. We go to different cities and work with different agencies."

A third student adds: "I've always loved such services and so it is an important part of my life. It seem like a great opportunity to not only serve but also see other parts of the States."

"It is an interesting trip, " says another student.

"What I really enjoy about it is just making a difference and knowing that what I am doing is helping others," a student adds.

Both Food and Friends manager Regan Kerchner and volunteer coordinator Diane Tollick say the student volunteers they get through Break Away are hard workers who make a significant contribution.

"They are great. They bring a lot of energy to the organization," says Mr. Kerchner.

"They are dedicated; they are excited about what they are doing," adds Ms. Tollick. " They are glad to be doing service. Most of them are doing service in the name of God, whoever their God is. And they do good work because of that."

Break Away executive director Dan McCabe says the alternative break movement continues to gain momentum with American college students, because when participants return to campus, they serve as an inspiration to their classmates.