More than 100 Northern Illinois University students are headed for warmer climes during the university’s upcoming spring break, but their main objective isn’t to soak up rays on the beach.
Instead, they’ll be working with the poor in West Virginia, building homes for Habitat for Humanity in Florida and Tennessee, helping victims of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, doing chores at an animal sanctuary in Oklahoma and cleaning up hiking trails in Georgia’s Chattahoochee National Forest.
Once a novelty, alternative spring break trips continue to grow in popularity among NIU students.
“Students are always looking for meaningful service opportunities,” says Becky Harlow, assistant director of NIU’s Office of Student Involvement and Leadership Development. “The chance to do this in combination with traveling to a new place is an added bonus. It’s a movement really. Last year, over 80,000 students across the country went on an alternative break.”
NIU students will be on spring break during the week of March 14. Student Involvement and Leadership Development has a total of 52 students participating in three separate trips. That’s more than double the number of students that Harlow signed up for alternative spring break outings three years ago.
One of Harlow’s spring break groups will work this month with Rebuilding Together New Orleans, an organization that helps renovate and rebuild homes devastated by storms in the Gulf.
The second group will work with Katrina’s Kids, a project founded to assist children impacted by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. And the third group will work at Safari’s Interactive Animal Sanctuary in Broken Arrow, Okla. The sanctuary is a refuge for wildlife of all kinds, including big cats, wolves and bears.
“What’s great is that our students are truly devoted to the service aspect,” Harlow says. “The biggest compliment I can receive is when a student comes back year after year or wants to step up and take a leadership role to create an impactful experience for his or her peers.”
Buikema, a junior political science major from Fulton, is a veteran alternative spring breaker, having gone on two previous trips with Harlow. This year he has served as a planning leader for the group that will work with Rebuilding Together New Orleans.
“I just think it’s more worth your while to spend spring break helping people,” Buikema says.
“I like doing community service work, and on the trips you get to meet so many interesting people who obviously have a shared interest,” he adds. “My first trip was to Galveston, Texas, a place I had never been before, with 22 strangers. Some of those people I still hang out with today.”
Freshman Sarah Pollack, a special education major from Skokie, is going on her first alternative spring break while at NIU—to the animal sanctuary in Oklahoma. But she’s no stranger to service trips.
“I decided to go on the trip because I have done two volunteer trips with my high school,” she says. “They are so much fun. I can gain experience and meet new people—and (the trips) are opportunities I may never get again.”
In addition to the Student Involvement and Leadership Development trips, NIU students will participate in alternative spring break outings run by three other groups:
- NIU’s Recreation Services is taking 15 students to Georgia to volunteer with the U.S. Forest Service. They’ll be conducting trail maintenance in the Chattahoochee National Forest.
- The Newman Catholic Student Center is running two trips. Sixteen students will head to Murfreesboro, Tenn., to work with Habitat for Humanity, and 13 students are going to Wyoming County, W.Va., to work with the Passionist Volunteers.
- Sociology instructor Jack King is running his annual trip to Pensacola, Fla. Twenty four students, six alumni and several faculty members will help build Habitat homes. The trip is headed into its 18th year. Over that span, NIU groups have built more than 25 homes—enough to fill a small subdivision.
“The idea of engagement in community service during spring breaks has really grown,” King says. “When I first started this at NIU, it was an idea floating around. Now it has become institutionalized at universities.
“NIU has really supported it,” he adds. “We’ve convinced kids that service learning makes sense. I think the students who do that get a lot more out of it — and they’re telling their friends.”
Note: Registration for all of the alternative spring break outings mentioned above is now closed.