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Lehigh students sacrifice spring break fun for service

More than 30 Lehigh students opted out of days of spring break sun and fun last week for a chance to make a difference in the lives of others, returning to Lehigh with a sense of accomplishment and reward that will remain long after a suntan fades.

Four groups of Lehigh students traveled to different locations around the country to serve food in soup kitchens in Cincinnati, toil in an organic garden in Atlanta, help construct an environmental trail in the mountains of Tennessee, and provide terminally children a once-in-a-lifetime experience in Orlando.

For a news article and video clip of Cincinnati television station WLWT’s coverage of the Cincinnati trip, see College Students Spend Spring Break Serving Homeless.

“It’s been incredible,” says Zoe Zachariades ’09, a French/English double major who served as site leader for the group that traveled to Orlando to volunteer with the “Give Kids the World” organization.

Although Zachariades and her crew of seven Lehigh students performed some mundane tasks such as painting porch rockers, they also put their creative talents to work in organizing a “Winter Wonderland” celebration for terminally ill children and their parents.

“We had a ton of fun,” she says. “We met great people, made new friends and felt that we did something worthwhile, too. I can go to the beach anytime—this was something that was a great experience.”

“It’s a great feeling”

Last year, Zachariades spent spring break in Biloxi, Miss., helping with clean-up after Hurricane Katrina, which left sections of the town devastated. Although the surroundings were depressing and the challenge of rebuilding daunting, she felt equally positive about that experience.

“You gain a real sense that you did something good,” she says. “It’s a great feeling.”

Her sentiments were echoed by Julie Ellis ’10, a political science major, who participated in a trip to Atlanta to work with that city’s homeless and homebound ill.

“I don’t feel that I missed out on anything,” she says. “I had a lot of fun and got to know some great people—even other students from Lehigh I didn’t know before this trip. I feel that I did something productive and helped people. It was great.”

The first-time trip to Atlanta by Lehigh students was designed to acquaint them with the mission of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., according to Alta Thornton, director of multicultural affairs.

“When we were planning this year’s celebration of Dr. King’s birthday, we wanted to find a way to make his work more real to our students and have this experience be a part of the SpringSERVE program,” Thornton says. “By taking them to the community where Dr. King lived, and having them do the work they did—like sorting clothes and toys for children in shelters, tilling land and planting crops in a community garden, and delivering sack lunches to homeless men in city parks and shelters—it helped to bring those messages home.”

“A logical progression”

All of the volunteer experiences were coordinated through the SpringSERVE program developed through the university’s Community Service Office, which runs similar programs over the winter and summer breaks.

“Over the last two years, we’ve greatly expanded our SERVE program,” says Carolina Hernandez, director of Lehigh’s Community Service Office, who attributes a growing sense of civic mindedness among students to their previous service experiences.

“As more and more students come to Lehigh with significant service experience, they’re finding that this type of intense, immersive program presents a logical progression,” Hernandez says. “We’re seeing more students who are willing to dedicate their breaks to a worthy cause.”

Over the past few months, Hernandez worked with student coordinators Jill Engels ’08, a sociology major, and Mike Chu ’09, a computer science/business major, to discuss possible service opportunities that Lehigh students might be interested in.

“We like to be certain that there are a variety of options available that address a wide range of issues, and that provide a really meaningful, expansive learning opportunity for our students,” she says.

Very often, she says, students return with an invigorated passion for community service, and continue to volunteer their time to the Lehigh Valley community or their own hometowns.

“Ideally,” Hernandez says, “we want our students to realize that they can make a difference, wherever they live.”

-- Linda Harbrecht

Posted on Monday, March 10, 2008

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