Free Lance-Star reporter Amy Umble covers Stafford County schools and other education issues

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UMW students take alternative spring break

The University of Mary Washington today issued the following press release:

They could have been soaking up rays on sunny beaches. Instead, nearly four dozen University of Mary Washington students on spring break headed south to help build homes and schools in places like the Carolinas and Honduras.

In the tradition of alternative spring break trips, the student-run Community Outreach and Resources (COAR) organized three trips. Thirteen students went to Alabama, 11 traveled to South Carolina and 14 headed to North Carolina—all to work with Habitat for Humanity building houses for low-income families. The university’s chapter of Students Helping Honduras (SHH) sent eight students to work on a school for children in the impoverished Honduran village of La Nunez.

“It is kind of cool to see that you’re making a big difference over your spring break, rather than going to the beach or just sitting on the couch watching TV,” said Brittany Thompson, a senior philosophy and classics major and a student leader for the South Carolina trip.

In South Carolina, students put finishing touches on a house by building fences, placing vinyl siding on exterior walls, painting doors, installing light fixtures and sanding. “You bond with everybody that you go with over something important. You’re building a house, which isn’t just like hanging out with somebody for a week,” Thompson said.

COAR has offered an alternative spring break program in association with Habitat’s Collegiate Challenge for several years. UMW students grow considerably over the course of the week, said Christina Eggenberger, associate director of student activities and community service.

“They get to know what Habitat is all about,” she said. “A lot of groups meet the family they’re building the house for, and that has a big impact on their opinion of people who need a house from Habitat.”

Students often acquire new skills and an appreciation for the work that goes into building a house, Eggenberger added. “A lot of people who’ve gone have never before used a hammer or power tools,” she said.

The students don’t know ahead of time what work needs to be done. “They could be starting from the foundation or they could be in the painting and siding phases,” Eggenberger said.

In Honduras, students participated in SHH’s larger initiative to help rebuild 3,100 schools in poor communities across Honduras. Michael Behrens, SHH chapter president at Mary Washington, said some students had been on previous SHH trips and convinced others to join them for the first time. Behrens said the trip is an experience the students can’t get in the U.S.

“The feel of being out of your comfort zone in a foreign country is scary and exciting at the same time,” he said. “It changes you for the rest of your life. You have a new understanding for what ‘going without’ really means.”

Behrens said the students who went to Honduras for the first time had an experience similar to his own first trip with SHH: overwhelming in a positive way.

“It’s opening your eyes to a world that you knew was there, but there’s a big difference between reading and talking about that world, and then seeing that world,” he said. “They can’t wait to go back. They can’t wait to get on a plane and go down and do more.”