Students Trying Different Spring Break

March 31, 2005

It's spring break, but there's no beach and no kicking back for Alice Tin.

The 17-year-old junior from a boarding school in suburban Boston is dipping raw chicken in flour, getting it ready to fry at a Chicago cafe that serves the homeless and others in need. Fifteen-year-old Renia Davis is among those delivering lemonade and meals. And Matt Kamps, 17, is in the back doing dishes.

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They're on what's known as an ``alternative spring break,'' a growing trend among college and, increasingly, high school students who spend their vacations building houses, helping hurricane victims and delving into topics ranging from sustainable agriculture to literacy.

These particular high school students spent their recent break in Chicago learning about poverty and homelessness with the Civic Education Project, a nonprofit at Northwestern University that organizes spring and summer programs for high schoolers. Among other things, they trained as vendors for a newspaper written and sold by homeless people; volunteered at an after-school program in a low-income neighborhood; and sorted and repackaged items donated to the Greater Chicago Food Depository.

``I don't see it like I'm giving up spring break. I feel like I'm taking advantage of a good opportunity,'' says volunteer Brenda Chu, a 15-year-old from Plainsboro, N.J., who attends a boarding school in Deerfield, Mass.

For others, learning more about homelessness was personal.

``I'm faced with this issue daily, so it was less of a choice to be here and something that needed to be done,'' says Whittney Smith, a 16-year-old who lives on Chicago's impoverished West Side. A high school junior, she is hoping to attend Boston College and become a lawyer who deals with public policy and, very likely, issues related to poverty.

What began with a few students from Vanderbilt University organizing volunteer trips in the late 1980s has grown to nearly 40,000 students choosing to go on an alternative spring breaks each year, says Jake Brewer. He's executive director of Break Away, a nonprofit organization in Tallahassee, Fla., that began in 1991 and now has more than 120 student chapters, most of them at colleges but a few at high schools.

Each year, his organization puts its chapters in touch with organizations that need help, from Habitat for Humanity and The Nature Conservancy to lesser-known nonprofits in other countries.

Some students camp or stay at churches. Others are put up at places such as Hostelling International, which has become a partner with Break Away and other alternative break organizations.

And bucking a long-standing spring break tradition, most alternative spring breaks have a ``no alcohol'' rule. ``They remember the experience long, long after they come home, which may not be true if you're drunk on the beach in Florida,'' Brewer says, chuckling.

After hearing positive feedback from friends, Neal Frei, a 20-year-old sophomore at Hamilton College in upstate New York, decided to spend this year's spring break helping build houses for Habitat for Humanity in Winston-Salem, N.C.

Frei says he found the experience -- which included learning how to shingle a roof, working with a team and helping people in need -- extremely fulfilling. And he concedes that doing an alternative spring break ``probably looks good on a resume, too.''

Some employers agree.

``Alternative spring breaks have a way of developing an emotional intelligence factor,'' says Kelly McSween. She regularly hires college students and graduates with alternative break experience for her company, Envision EMI, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C., that runs career and leadership education programs for youth and adults.

People who receive help from the students are appreciative, too, evidenced as the high school students with the Civic Education Project wrapped up their evening at Chicago's Inspiration Cafe, where they served dinner and assembled bag lunches for the next day.

As they said their goodbyes, one client stood up and clapped and many others waved and shouted ``Thank you!''

The students smiled and clapped, too, as they departed down a hallway and headed back to their hostel by train. Once there, they chatted about their experience and cooked a meal for one another.

``A lot of times, kids end up in tears,'' says Julia Kirkman, a 24-year-old teacher in suburban Boston who spent this spring break as a counselor with the Civic Education Project. ``I love those moments.

``That's when I know they've learned something and experienced something powerful.''