Students take break to help around the country

For most students, spring break is a chance to forget about their responsibilities and work on their tans for a week. However, some students used the time to learn while helping with serious issues affecting communities throughout the country through the UM’s Alternative Spring Break (ASB) program.

“The issues span the spectrum, but the overall purpose of ASB is to expose college students actively to various social programs around the country and help them to understand the root problems,” site leader education co-chair Alex Ortiz said. “We want to get them to actually be conscientious and ultimately active citizens who ask why these things happen and who make the community a priority.”

This year, students had several options of what issues they wanted to focus on, including hunger and homelessness, animal rights, the environment and HIV/AIDS. There were 15 student and faculty site leaders, between 40 and 50 student participants and one of the lowest drop rates the program has ever had, according to Ortiz.

“I decided to do ASB because I enjoy community service, like the idea of traveling and had heard nothing but good things about the organization,” Kara Brown, Hunger and Homelessness site participant, said. “I thought it would be nice to have a complete break from classes but still spend the short time I had off doing something productive.”

The seven women in the Hunger and Homelessness group were sent to Boulder, Colorado to work with the organization StandUp for Kids. After two days of intense training they became street counselors for the organization. During their time in Boulder, the participants spent their days reorganizing the center’s clothing closets; in the evenings they went on outreach, providing bag lunches and listening to youth on the streets.

“Initially it was a little shocking because it was difficult to imagine that a wealthy city like Boulder had a significant homeless population,” said Brown, a sophomore and first time ASB participant. “However, they actually have 10,000 residents who can be classified as homeless.”

Another group went to New York City to work with Momentum AIDS Project, an organization that gives support to HIV/AIDS patients through nutrition education, housing, and job searches. The twelve UM students prepared and served meals and interacted with the patients to show them that people were there to listen.

“Definitely when I went I had a stereotype that AIDS patients were a certain way,” Swati Chalavarya, sophomore and first time ASB participant, said. “They were so surprised that we would actually sit down with them or shake their hands.”

Whether it was helping kids with homework or fighting for human rights, the ASB participants came back feeling that they had made a difference.

“They told us that we were putting a face to the disease [AIDS], that they are human too and not invisible,” Chalavarya said. “We came back wanting to express what we learned to others.”

“ASB boasts that it can provide a life-changing experience, and they are absolutely correct,” Brown said. “This year, the Hunger and Homelessness site is especially unique in that we are taking what we have learned with Boulder’s chapter of StandUp and using it to restart the Miami chapter. We are all excited that, in a way, our spring break doesn’t have to end.”

>> For more information about ASB, contact the Butler Volunteer Services Center at 305-284-GIVE.

Catherine Howden can be contacted at