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College students spend alternative spring break in Baltimore

After a busy first semester last year at Boston University, Hayley Spivey was eager to head home to Florida for spring break. Yet while the theater arts major enjoyed the sun and fun, she also found herself slightly bored.

"It was nice seeing my family and friends," recalled Spivey, 19. "But other than relaxing, I didn't do much else."

This year, however, the sophomore was in Maryland for her school break, taking part in a movement that's swept college campuses nationwide.

Known as Alternative Spring Break, the concept, which gained popularity in the 1980s and 1990s, centers around students performing community service during their time off, instead of, say, participating in wild parties or beach escapes.

"Everyone who'd signed up told me their lives had changed," Spivey said of Boston University's program, which dates to 1988. "I wanted my life changed, too."

Earlier this month, she was among a cohort of 15 students who volunteered at St. Martin's Home in Catonsville, a community for needy, elderly residents managed by the Little Sisters of the Poor. Residents range in age from their 60s to several centenarians.

"This was the second year for a visit, and the students and residents bonded," said Sister Lawrence Mary, the facility's volunteer coordinator. "The residents were excited to have young people around, and shared their stories and wisdom."

During their nine-day stay, students — hailing from across the country and as far away as China — cleaned, served meals, tended the garden, did office work and assisted with daily activities of the residents.

Spivey, who'd originally intended to do some type of environmental volunteerism through the university's Alternative Spring Break program, said "being with the seniors and helping the nuns" did indeed change her life.

"It turned out to be just what I needed," she said of the experience. "We played games with the residents, we hung out. It was great."

A few miles away in Baltimore, a group of Howard University students had also given up their spring vacations and trips back home in favor of taking on some volunteer service.

"I felt like I needed to stay involved during my break, not waste time," said Jordan Shanks,18, a freshman English major from Richmond. "And I wanted to give back, somehow."

Howard, a historically black university in Washington, has a nationally recognized Alternative Spring Break program conceived 20 years ago.

Since then, hundreds of students have visited the Gulf Region following Hurricane Katrina, aided earthquake victims in Haiti and lent a hand in underserved communities in Chicago, Detroit, Memphis, New Orleans and elsewhere.

This year marked the second time Howard students — with a delegation of about 45 — have descended upon neighborhoods across Baltimore to volunteer. The group stayed for more than a week.

In the mornings, students worked with the educational organization Baltimore Liberation Diploma Plus High School, offering academic support.

Others spent time on the city's east side working with the YO! Baltimore, Youth Opportunity program. They provided literacy support for people seeking to earn their GEDs and visited a local Boys & Girls club to assist kids. There was also a college readiness workshop.

The Howard students also interacted with at-risk youth via the Safe Streets program, designed to reduce gun violence among teens and young adults.

"It was a wake-up call for me in terms of what's happening in the world," said Shanks, a student photographer who helped document the visit as part of the campus newspaper staff. "It was an opportunity to understand someone else's reality. I realize how lucky I am."

During the chaperoned visit, Howard University's interim president, Wayne A.I. Frederick, dropped in to offer encouragement and praise. The Rev. Bernard Richardson, dean of Howard's Office of the Chapel, which established the program, said it has proven to be an effective learning lab for students.

"Each year, the goals have been to respond to the needs of communities through activism and service, to develop leadership skills among students, and to help students critically reflect on how they can positively impact those around them," he said.

Back in Catonsville, at the completion of their service, the Boston University students put on a musical performance for the residents and Little Sisters.

Spivey said the students and residents spoke of how they would miss each other.

"When they departed, many tears were shed," said Sister Lawrence Mary. "But everyone did promise to keep in touch."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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