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© St. Petersburg Times, published March 31, 2002
Spring break is the annual rite of passage in which nearly 1-million college students relax on sandy beaches and binge drink in tiki bars. For thousands of others, however, spring break has become a time to serve the less fortunate.
During the last two weeks, I have had the opportunity to see traditional spring break and the new spring break. On Sunday and Monday, I was in Daytona Beach on business and saw a multitude of beer-soaked students partying like partying was going out of business.
When I returned to St. Petersburg, I watched about seven students from the University of Alabama helping to build a Habitat for Humanity house in a poor black neighborhood. I visited the site because my daughter, now in college, was preparing for spring break and was unsure of what she would do. I wanted her to use the time usefully, like working on a Habitat house.
Imagine my shock Wednesday evening after learning that the seven students, visitors to my city, had to duck bullets while volunteering in the service of the poor. As the students worked Wednesday morning, they heard shouting and cursing between two men across the street. Tensions increased and 15 cars drove up. Forty men threw punches and shooting broke out.
"We heard the gunfire, and we just ran," 21-year-old Alabama student Mary White said. "I've never heard gunshots."
I have not spoken with the students since their experience, but I hope they remain committed to serving others, especially working on Habitat houses.
To me, nothing is more important than serving others, and I am glad to see more and more students using spring break to this end. Here in St. Petersburg, three groups of 30 students from Eckerd College spent spring break in Chicago, Immokalee and Savannah doing volunteer work. These young people wanted to learn firsthand about issues of poverty and disenfranchisement. And, most important, they wanted to help.
"Chicago is a great laboratory in which to study urban issues," said Brian MacHarg, director of Service Ministry at Eckerd College and the leader of the group to the Windy City. "Although the Tampa Bay area has similar social problems, Chicago offers unique experiences to examine immigration, city politics, ethnic communities and social services."
Ten students met with agency representatives from Cook County Hospital, Kolbe House, Chicago REST Home, World Relief and the Children's Place Association. In addition to speaking with representatives, the students volunteered at each of these agencies. They served food to homeless men and women at the Chicago REST home and played with children with AIDS at the Children's Place Association.
Ten other students spent a week in Immokalee, where they worked in tomato fields alongside migrant farm workers. They also worked at Harvest for Humanity -- a farm established on the Habitat for Humanity model that lets fieldhands work toward owning the land. The students also tutored children and worked at a center for transient residents. Accustomed to nice dorm rooms and soft beds, the students slept the entire week on the floor of the United Methodist church in Immokalee.
Another Eckerd group worked in Savannah. There, they paired with the Montgomery Presbyterian Church and spent the week refurbishing the church's community center. They also worked at the City Homeless Shelter in Savannah, where they served food and performed odd jobs. Their stay did not go without an academic link. They studied some of Savannah's social issues.
"Savannah's historic fortune was linked to slavery," said the Rev. Mona Bagasao, Eckerd's director of Campus Ministries, who accompanied the students. "Savannah's current fortune is linked to tourism. What is the relationship between these two vis-a-vis use of resources, especially people?"
I was most impressed with four college students from Miami I met in Belle Glade. They spent spring break tutoring preschool children whose mothers have AIDS. These students have promised to spend a weekend each month assisting the children and their mothers.
"I was going to Cancun for break, but three of my friends came up with the idea of Belle Glade," 19-year-old Boston native Gina Berke said. "Belle Glade is like the Third World would be. It's depressing. I don't see how it can be part of our rich country. I feel terrible, but I feel good that I can help."
Student service officials nationwide say the number of students who spend spring break volunteering increases each year. This is a positive trend all Americans should encourage.