University of Rochester

Currents--University of Rochester newspaper

Students lend a hand during spring break

spring break
Aniela Glinski '08, Deste Relyea '06, and Nick Drury '06 (front to back) spruce up a hallway at St. Peter's, an organization in Baltimore that helps developmentally disabled adults with life skills.

Sure, they could have spent their break baking on a beach somewhere closer to the equator. Instead, 40 University undergraduates traveled to Biloxi and to Baltimore with the desire to assist families in need and take part in what many describe as a defining experience in their college careers.

From March 11 to 19, three groups of Rochester students donned work gloves and boots to make a difference during this year's Alternative Spring Break program. Two teams assisted with Hurricane Katrina cleanup in the Gulf Coast, and another team spent the week supporting urban outreach efforts in Baltimore.

Patrick Brennan, a Kauffman Entrepreneurial Year student, and Brian McCann, an analyst and programmer at the Center for Visual Science, were the organizers for a team of 20 students who spent the week in "Camp Biloxi," a tent city established by the Lutheran Church to house volunteers from across the country. The Rochester group assisted in a range of recovery projects, including clearing debris from a nature trail, repairing damaged homes, and assisting with distribution and food preparation at the camp.

McCann, who coordinated logistics and delegated work duties for the team, has made two previous trips to the area in recent months to assist in relief efforts. "After going a few times, you almost become desensitized to the magnitude of the situation. And those scenes of destruction go on for hundreds of miles. You have to remember it's a disaster the size of Great Britain. What you see, it just doesn't compute. I think most of the students felt the same way. But this group was very service minded and really just wanted to do all they could to help. In fact, most of them would get frustrated if they completed a project by 3 p.m. and there wasn't another job lined up for the afternoon. And when a work order would come in and I'd need three volunteers, I'd get 20 hands in the air."

Derek Crowe '09 says he was stunned by the devastation but glad that he could do something to help. "After talking to the people we did work for and seeing their emotions, it really became clear that we were doing the right thing and that the decision to go was the right one. It is amazing how much damage is still around after six months of clean-up efforts. In the grand scheme of things, we got so little accomplished in just a week, but in no way does it go unappreciated."

Another nine students organized by Hillel, the University's Jewish student organization, also traveled to Biloxi to assist with recovery efforts. A grant from the Jewish Community Federation of Greater Rochester covered most expenses. The group, led by Joel Kleinberg, director of programs for Hillel, repaired roofs on homes in Biloxi and Gulfport damaged by Hurricane Katrina and also visited a school and distributed disaster relief supplies.

"I felt such a sense of pride watching the students work, knowing they had given up their spring break, their time for fun and relaxation," Kleinberg says. "For me personally the experience was especially gratifying because we got to meet several homeowners and hear their stories, see photos of their homes before the disaster. Again and again they would tell us how blessed they were that others were willing to come and help them. They were such a source of strength to us."

Jonathan Elkin '08 says he too was moved by the endurance of those trying to rebuild their homes and their lives. He feels it is his responsibility to do what he can to help. "I also feel like this was my opportunity to be a part of something very large and, as some people have said, defining for my generation."

Several hundred miles north of Biloxi, 10 undergraduates in the Catholic Newman Community spent their spring break working at the House of Mercy, a program in Baltimore that offers shelter, counseling, educational services, and support to families and children. Students tutored children in the after-school program, learned about urban poverty and other city issues, and toured historical locations in Baltimore and Washington, D.C.

Peter Dwyer, a campus minister who accompanied the students, says experiences like Alternative Spring Break and similar outreach efforts are a significant component of a student's educational development. "In addition to offering charity to those we encounter, such trips encourage and foster genuine desire for greater social, economic, and political justice. While there will always be a need for charity and other expressions of love, we are called as Americans to educate ourselves on the needs of the poor and all who struggle with unemployment, racism, and addiction, and any other social detriment in order to enact laws which protect, rather than harm, welcome, rather than exclude, and ensure appropriate and humane standards that ensure an equal opportunity for the success of the human spirit."

For Deste Relyea '06, the student leader for the group, this was her second time volunteering in Baltimore as part of the Alternative Spring Break program. Each year, she says, the experience has reminded her how fortunate she is and how important it is to be mindful of those in need. "It is easy to forget how much we take for granted when we are not faced with the difficulties that so many others are faced with day in and day out. Being able to work with and for those who do not have as much as I do has been incredibly rewarding. For me, the trip is a small way to 'pay it forward,' if you will, and to help bring justice to the world in small steps."

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