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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

Spring Break Program Offers Students Service-Oriented Alternatives

Spring Break Program Offers Students Service-Oriented Alternatives

For some Old Dominion University students on spring break, "fun in the sun" meant hanging drywall on the hurricane-ravaged Jersey shore, instead of hanging out at a beach resort. For others, it meant mentoring children in Miami instead of riding waves in Costa Rica.

ODU's Alternative Breaks program - which is part of the national Break Away organization - provided the service opportunities, as well as others in Milwaukee, Wis., and Moab, Utah.

In addition, each year Old Dominion University Catholic Campus Ministry travels to different locations for Alternative Spring Break trips. This year, a group of Catholic Campus Ministry students traveled to McKee, KY. The students devoted their days to working in the communities while interacting and building relationships with the elderly, mentally disabled, the orphaned and the poor of the area. (See video to the right for more on this trip.)

With those options, University students snapped up the chances to volunteer during the traditional March Spring Break holiday for college students.

"We had enough applications to fill all 35 spots in 48 hours," said Emily Eddins, Old Dominion's assistant director for service learning, leadership and student involvement. "As a program, Alternative Breaks has taken off at ODU."

As a Colorado State student, Eddins was so impressed by the scope of that school's thriving Alternative Breaks program she wrote her dissertation on it.

At ODU for little more than a year, Eddins said the chance to manage and expand Alternative Breaks at the University was a major attraction of the job.

"I had a couple of service experiences abroad as an undergrad and they really changed me," she said. "I wanted to help facilitate that for others."

She said her first move with Alternative Breaks was to recruit and train eight dynamic student leaders who chose destinations, found community partners at each volunteer site, created budgets and signed up classmates.

"The caliber of student leadership is beyond anything I have experienced in the past," Eddins said. "Over the past year, they have demonstrated that they are clearly representatives of the high-quality student leaders we have on campus."

Last month, four teams of about nine students each, plus three faculty advisers, set off to south Florida to work with disadvantaged youth; New Jersey for post-Hurricane Sandy relief; the Utah desert for environmental and home-construction projects; and Milwaukee to work at a community development center.

Echoing Eddins, New Jersey team leader Christiana Hammond said the week changed her perspective. Her team paired with a church group to repair storm-damaged houses; work that Hammond said delivered "great power" to her and her peers.

"The feelings there were undeniable, and unlike any other experience," said Hammond, a senior Interdisciplinary Studies major.

Similarly, working in Miami and Ft. Lauderdale with the non-profit International Children's Outreach at preschools and after-care facilities presented a self-awakening for senior Stephanie Flores. In an essay she posted on social media, Flores said children emerged from classrooms to cheer the volunteers who were working under the hot sun to beautify their playground.

"The children taught me that it's not the material things that you provide them that will make them happy, but that the most important thing you can give them is your time, hope, a kind word, care and, most of all, your love," Flores wrote.

In Utah, ODU junior Zach Snyder co-led the student effort to extend a mountain-biking trail in a former mining town whose economy now depends on adventure-sports tourism.

The student group, which stayed at a campground 20 miles from Moab, also teamed with community volunteers to build a retaining wall to protect low-income houses built into a hillside.

"It was cool to help give the tourists who want to come to mountain bike and off-road a good experience, but also to help the local people struggling with their housing," Snyder said. "We got to experience both sides of it."

The Milwaukee team that painted and mentored at a private, non-profit community center for at-risk youth was so appreciated, they were asked to return even before they left for home.

"The workers there adored us," said Selena Penn, a sophomore nursing major, who said the center arranged tours to Lake Michigan for the students and treated them to an NBA game. "They said you have to come back next year, send pictures, stay in touch."

The ODU students spent time with youth of all ages, playing games, tutoring and just talking, said Penn, who added she happily passed up a traditional spring-break trip to trek to chilly Wisconsin.

"Instead of partying every day, I got to do something to benefit someone else," Penn said. "It's rare that you get to serve day after day. Most volunteer projects are one Saturday, and then somewhere the next Saturday. We got to spend the whole week with these kids, and we got to see the impact that we made."

For more information about Old Dominion's Alternate Breaks program, and other volunteering opportunities offered through the University, visit the Service Learning and Civic Engagement website.