February 25, 2009 — Spring break can be more than a day at the beach.
The Alternative Spring Break program, which is completely student-run at the University of Virginia, provides an opportunity to spend a vacation week performing community service.
Bowman Dickson, president of the organization, said about 550 students are participating in 24 domestic missions, many involved with disaster relief, and 19 foreign trips, most of which are in South and Central America. About 85 students participated in projects during the winter break and 40 are signed up for summer service.
"Students have tons of reasons for doing this," said Dickson, a U.Va. undergraduate. "But some don't feel they have time during their regular week to commit to service. There is also the travel aspect of it, seeing new places and making a difference there."
Ten students aren't traveling far. They will be working with Charlottesville's Computers 4 Kids, offering a week-long after-school computer lab to not only improve youngsters' computing skills, but also to teach them about nutrition. Other activities will include visiting a homeless shelter, working at a soup kitchen and attending meetings of the Charlottesville City Council and Food Not Bombs, a social justice organization.
"This is attractive to students who want to know what's going on outside of the U.Va. bubble," said Shokoufeh Dianat, one of the two student leaders of the Charlottesville project.
"A perennial criticism of the program is that there is so much to do in America, why are we sending people overseas?" Dickson said. "And then there are people who say there is so much to do in Charlottesville. We offer trips with a wide range of destinations, but recognize that not all students can afford a trip overseas."
Some of the Charlottesville volunteers may stay active in the organizations with which they worked.
"We can hope that our participants will continue working with these organizations beyond spring break, but I think the ultimate goal is greater than that," Dianat said. "The goal is for these participants to come back to U.Va. with an idea of the problems that exist in this community and the creative ways that our leaders are trying to address these problems."
About half of the program's sites are repeats, and Dickson said the organization is trying to build long-term partnerships in some countries. Volunteers have gone to the Dominican Republic and Jamaica for five years, and many other sites for three years.
Dickson will travel to Death Valley National Park in California to install grills at campsites and maintain trails.
"I have always been intrigued by the Western landscape," he said. "The National Park Service is great to work with and the work needs to be done. It's a good use of volunteer labor."
A 12-member executive committee selects group leaders, who are responsible for planning the trips, booking the flights and making the arrangements on the ground in the host countries.
Dickson said Alternative Spring Break provides students who cannot take a semester abroad an opportunity to visit a foreign country.
Among the missions the students have planned:
• Ten students are going to New York City to work at Trinity Services and Food for the Homeless' soup kitchen, food pantry and referral center. They will also be refurbishing and painting children's shelters.
• Fifteen students are taking a three-state road trip to West Virginia, Indiana and Iowa, working with Habitat for Humanity and other organizations on disaster relief and housing repair.
• Twelve students are traveling to Belize to build teachers’ residences in La Gracia, near the border of Belize and Guatemala. The group also seeks to establish a continuing U.Va.-La Gracia partnership, particularly in water-purification work.
• Ten students will travel to the Galapagos Islands to work on school infrastructure, including painting and repairing walls, roof and floors.
• Two groups of students will be traveling to Jamaica to work with school children and perform construction.
• Students going to Peru will work at an orphanage, street center and primary school, teaching, arranging games and day trips, as well as painting and gardening.