WMU News

Students spend spring break volunteering around the country

Feb. 18, 2000

KALAMAZOO -- Instead of joining their classmates reclining on beaches in exotic locales, 144 Western Michigan University students will spend their spring break volunteering at sites around the nation.

The contingent departs from campus Friday, Feb. 25, to participate in "Alternative Spring Break," a student-run program that will dispatch the student volunteers to 12 U.S. cities. Their experiences will range from cleaning up the Florida Keys to helping refugees from around the world adjust to their new life in America.

"Alternative Spring Break is a life changing experience," says Julie Rogers, student publicity coordinator, executive board member and a team leader for the excursion. "It gives you a chance to see what things are really like for people who don't have the advantages that we do. The students who participate always see the world in a different light once they're back on campus."

Now in its ninth year at WMU, Alternative Spring Break matches students with positive volunteer experiences where they will learn the value of community service. Under the umbrella of the University's Student Volunteer Services, the program encourages students to leave their familiar surroundings and experience a drastically different environment.

Several new sites have been added to the traditional locations for 2000. Volunteer will be: working with patients afflicted with HIV/AIDS in San Antonio; helping international refugees acclimate to American culture in Nashville, Tenn.; cleaning up the Hungry Mother State Park in Marion, Va.; working at a home for abused and neglected boys in Georgetown, S.C.; interacting with inner city minority children in Washington, D.C.; addressing urban poverty in Atlanta; working to combat rural poverty in Alamosa, Colo., and Corbin, Ky.; addressing environmental issues in the Florida Keys; working with the Boys and Girls Club on a Navajo Indian reservation in Shiprock, N.M.; and helping the homeless in Portsmith, N.H., and Cleveland.

Since its first foray with 12 students at one site in 1992, Alternative Spring Break has grown in popularity to the point where interest far outstrips the program's capacity. Participants are selected on the basis of motivation, the degree of realism in their expectations and previous volunteer experience -- program coordinators seek both those with extensive and very limited volunteer experience. Flexibility, acceptance of diversity and the ability to make a significant time commitment to the program also were important selection criteria. Those who are not accepted into the program are placed on an alternate list in the event that other participants are unable to fulfill their commitment.

Students have been meeting since November and have attended training sessions designed to prepare them for their volunteer experience. The sessions have incorporated team building, group dynamics and issue area training, as well as presentations and workshops by community members familiar with the volunteer sites or issues.

"We focus heavily in our training on team building," Rogers says. "These situations are extremely intense once you get on site, and it's important for group members to have a bond before they go. You eat, sleep and breathe tough issues with these people, and difficulties can arise if you can't relate to one another."

Students pay $150 each to cover part of the cost of the trip. This money, along with funding from the University, makes the trips possible.

Following their return to campus on Saturday, March 4, the students will plan and execute "ripple effect" service projects, during which they'll apply the lessons of their national experience to the greater Kalamazoo community.

For more information about Alternative Spring Break, members of the media may contact Julie Rogers at (616) 385-9751.

Media contact: Jessica English, 616 387-8400, jessica.english@wmich.edu

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