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An “Eye-Opening” Spring Break

Published: March 20, 2008
On a residential street in the heart of New Orleans, a group of volunteers convened at a house that, like many in the area, had been vacant the three years since Hurricane Katrina. Together, the volunteers worked to chip away the old paint that covered the home’s exterior before applying a fresh coat to give it a brand new look. The group also worked to paint the home’s new interior walls – an essential step in bringing the home back to life for its owner, who had lived in a trailer since the hurricane.

It was an important job for the 15 volunteers, all University of Tampa students, who spent the week of March 9-15 in New Orleans working with the nonprofit agency Rebuilding Together as part of Alternative Spring Break.

The annual Alternative Spring Break, sponsored by the UT student group PEACE (People Exploring Active Community Experience), is billed as an alternative to the “traditional” spring break, sending students to locations throughout the southeastern U.S. to participate in various volunteer projects.

“It was a very eye-opening experience,” said Katrina Vidal, the alternative breaks coordinator for PEACE. “Some of the students want to go back or raise money to continue to help out.”

In between painting, the volunteers took time to listen to the local residents who occasionally stopped by to watch the work that was being done. The residents told of watching people climb up to sit on the roofs of houses where they waited to be rescued in the aftermath of the storm. They told of having their homes destroyed and of having to live in tents and government-provided trailers. And they told of the helplessness they felt not knowing what to do in the aftermath of a disaster that claimed the lives of many of their fellow residents.

For Josh Murphy, a UT senior, the experience struck an emotional chord.

“Hearing about what their lives were like before and after was quite amazing,” Murphy said. “I was surprised because I thought they would be more angry about all that has happened, but they were just very grateful for the work we were doing. They were still hopeful and looking to the future.”

Previous Alternative Spring Break projects have focused on Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts elsewhere. Last year’s group traveled to Meridian, MS, where they spent the week constructing new homes for residents who had relocated there after Katrina.

UT sophomore Ellery McCardle applied to participate in the New Orleans having previously done smaller volunteer projects.

“I wanted to do a larger-scale project and thought this would be a great way,” McCardle said. “PEACE really motivates students to reach out to other communities and volunteer there. We would be working and people would walk by and yell ‘thank you!’ That really made the whole trip worthwhile.”

Students wanting to participate in Alternative Spring Break apply during the fall semester for one of the 15 available spots. The popularity of Alternative Spring Break in particular, among the rest of PEACE’s many yearly volunteer projects, has led the group’s organizers to start planning for a future “Alternative Winter Break” or other similar trips.

“Hopefully we’ll be able to have two trips next year,” Vidal said. “We’re working on expanding the program so that we don’t have to turn people away. We’re so proud of the work that the students are able to do.”