Students going for Alternative Spring Break

Students going for Alternative Spring Break

CHAMPAIGN – This weekend, two dozen University of Illinois students will be heading to the Gulf Coast. Their destination is not the beaches of South Padre Island or Florida, and they won't be spending their days drinking and soaking up the sun.

Instead, they'll be doing cleanup in the areas hit by hurricanes last fall. The trips are offered by Alternative Spring Break, an organization that coordinates service trips centered around various social justice issues.

This year, Alternative Spring Break is offering 15 trips during the UI's spring break, including work with hurricane disaster relief organizations in Luling, La., and Biloxi, Miss.

"It's still a mess down there," said Mark Clark, a UI senior who helped set up the spring break trips this year. He said the students would be clearing debris – "a lot of grunt work. Whatever the organizations need."

Clark said one trip for hurricane relief was originally scheduled, but another was added because of student demand. Alternative Spring Break begins recruiting students for its trips at the start of the fall semester.

"People were asking right away if we were helping (with hurricane relief)," said Jessica Wetmore, co-director of Alternative Spring Break and a UI senior. "We would have been very disappointed if we hadn't found an organization (to work with)."

Alternative Spring Break teams up with social service organizations at its trip locations. The students – a maximum of 12 per trip – raise money to help cover the costs of the trip and to make a $200 donation to the organization with which they will be working. They also each pay a $250 fee to participate.

The trips this year include: working with impoverished children in a Kansas City, Mo., day care center; caring for animals at a farm animal rescue and protection organization in New York; preparing and delivering meals for people with HIV/AIDS, cancer or other debilitating illnesses in New York City; trail maintenance and invasive species removal in a Virginia state park; working with YMCA programs on a Sioux Indian reservation in South Dakota; building and repairing houses in the Appalachian area of West Virginia; and spending 48 hours living with homeless people in Washington, D.C., then working in shelters, soup kitchens and food banks in the city.

Alternative Spring Break is not just about the weeklong trip, Wetmore said. In addition to fundraising, the students meet weekly and discuss their views on social issues. They do a pre-break project to learn something about the issue related to their service trip, and after the trip they do something to share what they've learned.

"What we really stress as an organization is education, both before you go and when you're there," Wetmore said. "You don't just go build a house and that's it."

She's been on five Alternative Spring Break trips during her time at the UI. She loves the sense of adventure and the variety of the work.

"I like how many issues we deal with. They are all huge social issues that need a lot of attention," Wetmore said. "I like how many different people we get in our organization – engineers, English majors, art majors. I've got to meet people from all different backgrounds and diverse points of view.

"You get to know people very well when you spend 24 hours a day for a week with them," she added. "People usually make great friendships out of it."

Alternative Spring Break offers about 30 trips per year, including during fall and winter breaks. It will offer three trips this summer for the first time.

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