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Getaway for good

MU students seek spring break with a purpose

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  • Story by Nancy Moen
  • Photos courtesy of Mizzou Alternative Spring Break
  • Published: April 9, 2012

While many of their peers lounged in beach chairs and traveled to leisure destinations, 300 MU students embarked on altruistic adventures through Mizzou Alternative Spring Break. Participants offered volunteer service for people, animals and communities in need. 

Mizzou ASB formally started in 1991 with three work sites. This year, 45 vans and two cars transported students to fun and formative commitments that spanned the U.S.

Work sites ranged from Eagle Butte, S.D., to New Orleans, La., from Denver, Colo., to Jonesville, Va., and from Milnesands, N.M. to Tuscaloosa, Ala.

Senior Cole Donelson of Wildwood, Mo., president of Mizzou ASB, has participated in the program annually since his freshman year. 

“Spring break is just as much fun when you’re helping somebody. You go to a different part of the country, learn new things, work with awesome people and do meaningful work,” he says.

Students select the sites based on their service interests. Donelson, a major in journalism/strategic communication and business, and 12 other MU students traveled to a “storybook” nonprofit resort in Kissimmee, Fla., to give children with life-threatening illnesses a weeklong vacation of their lives.

Ice cream for breakfast

The Kissimmee crew served meals, bussed tables and assisted diners in the Gingerbread House cafeteria of the 70-acre village supported by Give Kids the World Foundation. If a kid wanted something, the students made it happen, including ice cream for breakfast.

They pushed wheelchairs, helped with crafts, worked in the magic castle, performed as costumed characters in theme parades, socialized with the families and gave out hugs and high fives.

“We got attached to these kids and were trying to make their lives as happy as possible,” Donelson says.

The students went where they were needed and, while working, saw firsthand how children — even those sick from chemotherapy — find joy in the smallest things. It was a rollercoaster of emotions for the MU team.  

“Thinking how you made the trip such a special time for the kids brings a whole new level of satisfaction. We enjoyed being able to bring happiness to the children and give them this phenomenal experience. But in the back of your mind you know how sick they are,” Donelson says.

Worthwhile opportunities

Mizzou ASB groups, usually with 10 students and two student leaders, traveled to 25 sites in 2012. Among the seemingly endless service opportunities, the most-requested projects centered on children, at 26 percent; health issues, 15 percent; and Habitat for Humanity, 13 percent.

Donelson has sampled the variety.

As a freshman he was a site leader on a trip to a small Minnesota town, where the students performed maintenance duties at One Heartland, a camp for children with HIV and AIDS.

Sophomore year he worked with diverse groups that serve the poor in Atlanta, Ga., — soup kitchen, food bank, children’s shelter and after-school care center. Last year, in Murphy, N.C., he assisted with stream-quality management by fortifying banks, removing invasive plants and planting trees.

Life lesson learned 

At a site in Jonesville, Va., Jane Lindley, a senior in international studies, witnessed the depth of poverty while helping to repair a family’s run-down home situated in the middle of nowhere. 

In a blog about the group’s Appalachia project, Lindley told of the bonding that happened as MU students fixed a kitchen and were “overjoyed to see how our hands transformed” the space.

She wrote of how much the students gained and how bittersweet it was to leave people and an area they otherwise might never have known: “How do you say goodbye to a family you have quickly grown so close to? … If we didn’t have classes, jobs or family back in Missouri, I am sure that our group would have wanted to stay for another month to finish the rest of the house.”

And it wasn’t just the family and restored kitchen that touched the lives of these Mizzou students. They grew attached as well to the local people who spoke to them like old friends and accepted the students without question.

“I was reminded that it is important for me to become involved in my community, no matter how large the city I live in is,” Lindley wrote.

Aiding animals in need

Mercedes Printz, a freshman in secondary mathematics education and international studies, spent her 2012 ASB at Animal Rescue New Orleans, a no-kill agency helping pets displaced by Hurricane Katrina. 

“My schedule during the semester is really busy, and I don't have time to do a lot of volunteering. I figured spring break would be a great chance to fix that,” Printz says.

She took dogs for walks, bathed them, cleaned their living spaces, and in a heartwarming end-of-week adventure, packed up the animals for a successful adoption day at an area PetCo.

Typically ASB participants enjoy one free day to act like tourists. Printz used the time away from her canine charges to visit the New Orleans zoo, explore a historic cemetery and wander around the French Quarter.

New Orleans has been an ASB site for several years, as have Dallas, Atlanta and the unincorporated town of Slick Rock, Colo. – where volunteers help remove invasive plants. Student interest in the service is what determines the destinations. See the variety of sites at asb.missouri.edu.

Affordable travel

Part of the attraction of a service trip is its affordability. Participants pay about $200 or less – half the standard cost of their trip – and do fundraising to cover the remainder. 

This year’s group raised $80,000, mostly through small donations from participants' friends, family and area businesses. Any unused funds are donated to the nonprofit organizations the volunteers serve. 

“For a trip of 12 people, expenses are low,” says ASB adviser Bryan Goers. Housing is provided by church groups, through facilities at the site or even supplied by alumni hosts. Last year in Dallas, the parent of one ASB participant hosted another group of Mizzou students.

Usually the sites pay for food, and the Mizzou Student Experience Fund – donated by alumni, parents and friends – helps cover free-day expenses and meals on the road. Students choose how they spend their day off, most often exploring the town.   

Beyond spring break

Students may apply for ASB spots in September. Site leaders form teams based on the applicants’ descriptions of why they want a specific project.

Because of the increasing demand for service experiences, Mizzou ASB is adding weekend trips close to home, and in January 2012 the program offered its first winter-break trip, an international site in the Dominican Republic. 

Donelson and 11 other MU volunteers – all experienced site leaders – traveled to Jaibon, D.R., where some helped set up a medical clinic at an orphanage, while others taught Spanish literacy and English in the local schools.

Putting their Spanish to use, Donelson and senior Luke Moore, also a journalism major, assisted the clinic’s volunteer doctors by translating for patients, who came from the orphanage and community.

“They had five doctors and only three translators, so they needed us. It meant everything when we could communicate the patients’ problems to the doctors,” Donelson says.

The international adventure was a hit and will continue to grow, Goers says. As with the spring trips, fundraising helped cover half the $1,000 cost.  

To learn more about ASB adventures, read student accounts of the trips at muasb.blogspot.com.

“There are some powerful things written on the blog. You get choked up reading about the experiences,” Goers says.

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Last updated: April 11, 2012