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For Spring Break, Some Choose Heavy Lifting Over Sunbathing

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March 7, 2006 | by Stephen Anzaldi

Students will undertake a wide array of pursuits next week when spring break begins. There will be working, partying, sleeping, job hunting and just hanging out at home. And then there’s Alternative Student Break (ASB), a national volunteer program that places students at work sites across the country.

In search of a totally different spring break experience, approximately 200 Northwestern students will head to upstate New York, central California, hurricane-damaged Louisiana and places in between to help out on pressing social and community issues.

At the 17 sites planned for this year, participants will be assigned countless service projects, including working at homeless shelters and construction sites, farming, cleaning beaches, parks and hiking trails, helping at-risk youths and rebuilding homes. Roughly 12 to 14 students are assigned to each site.

Three Louisiana trips are planned, two in New Orleans and one in Abbeville, just outside Lafayette. Emergency Communities is a disaster relief organization that has set up a relief kitchen to serve 500,000 meals in New Orleans over the next several months. With the kitchen as the central focus, the group is providing a safe space for local residents to connect and rebuild their community. There is also a distribution center for clothes.

According to communication junior Mona Yeh, Northwestern’s site leader for Emergency Communities, spots on the New Orleans trip were highly coveted. “There was definitely a lot of interest in these trips, and we had to put some people on a wait list,” Yeh said. “But by the time we leave, we’ll have found spots for everyone that registered for a trip. Not everyone gets their first choice, but there are plenty of worthy sites to visit.”

Other sites include the Center for the Homeless in South Bend, Ind.; Pace Center for Girls in Pensacola, Fla.; Cumberland Trail Conference in Crossville, Tenn.; Lupe Migrant Workers in San Juan, Texas; and Point Reyes Sea Shore outside San Francisco.

Participants pay an average of about $200 per trip to cover transportation, housing, food and administrative costs. In most cases, groups drive from Evanston in University vans to their sites. Other trips require air travel. At bedtime, depending on the local weather and surroundings, participants will sleep in dormitories, hostels and even tents.

Communication senior Greg Mortimer leads the site at Common Ground in New Orleans. His group will work in the Ninth Ward, distributing medicine, clearing debris and gutting damaged houses.

Mortimer enjoyed so much his ASB trip two years ago at a youth center on a South Dakota Indian reservation that he chose to lead a trip this year instead of taking a much needed vacation before graduation and his job search.

“The service is the most important thing,” he said. “But it’s exciting to meet new people and to see different parts of the country you wouldn’t otherwise see. And I felt like this was a unique opportunity to see firsthand the devastation of Hurricane Katrina and to help make a difference there.”

In 1987, a small group of Vanderbilt University students created Alternative Spring Break. It has since grown into a national organization with chapters throughout the United States. The Northwestern chapter altered the name by substituting “student” for “spring” because it also coordinates winter break trips. Also, it plans to roll out its first offerings for freshman this fall during New Student Week.

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The Observer will follow up with ASB participants like Yeh and Mortimer next month when they’ve returned from their trips.