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A different type of spring break



This contingent of Lehigh SpringSERVE volunteers traveled to Minnesota to work at a camp for children with HIV/AIDs.

There was a time when Carolina Hernandez and her staff in the Community Service Office at Lehigh had to essentially sell students on the concept of giving up spring break to work with the disadvantaged in towns and cities across the country, instead of whiling away idle hours on a sunny beach.

Now Hernandez, who serves as director of the office that coordinates community service activities for thousands of Lehigh students each year, has a waiting list of students eager to sign up.

“It is becoming quite a competitive program,” she says. “We had more students than we could place this year.”

Students were required to undergo an application process, and have a demonstrated interest in community service. Each of the four trips her office organized this year involves nine students, in addition to a faculty or staff advisor.

This year’s experiences were coordinated by Mike Chu, a junior computer science and business major from Pittsford, N.Y., who participated in and helped coordinate previous SpringSERVE trips. The program selection was made based on SERVE participant recommendations and student service interests, Hernandez says.

This year’s SpringSERVE trips include:

• Habitat for Humanity in Bluffton, S.C., where a team of students led by Audrey Turnowchyk ’09 and Jess Manno, assistant dean of students for Student Leadership Development, assembled building components for new houses.

• One Heartland in Willow River, Minn., where a group led by Taha Hague ’10, and Chris Diggs, a career counselor in Lehigh’s Career Services Office, worked at a camp for children with HIV/AIDs.

• Land Between the Lakes in Golden Pond, Ky., where a group led by Brittany Grimaldi ’09, and Regina Donato, a residence life coordinator, worked on the improvement and preservation of the national recreation area.

• Once Upon a Time in Appalachia in Maryville, Tenn., where a group led by Faith Roncoroni ’10, and Seth Goren, director of Jewish Student Life, worked with the Snow Bird Cherokee Native American community.

For Turnowchyk, a neuroscience major from Southern California, her trip to South Carolina to help build houses in a new neighborhood was the third SpringSERVE trip she participated in.

She volunteered through Lehigh’s Community Service Office since her freshman year, and is serving as site leader this time around.

“I was hoping to be assigned to this group,” she says. “I’ve worked with Habitat for Humanity before in San Antonio and in Bethlehem, and they’re a great organization.”

“A great opportunity to help others”

Fellow behavioral neuroscience major Taja Haque had also participated in a previous SpringSERVE program, and was eager to be involved in another experience this year.

“Last spring, I went on the trip to work with terminally children through the Give Kids the World organization in Orlando, Fla., and it was a great experience,” says Haque, who also volunteers through the APO service fraternity. “This year, we’re not working directly with the kids since it’s a summer camp, but we’re doing a lot of work on maintenance and on planning for the upcoming season. It’s a great opportunity to help others—in this case, children infected or affected by HIV.”

While students consistently site the sense of satisfaction as a great motivator for taking part in the service trips, Hernandez sees additional advantages.

“Our SERVE programs provide a great opportunity for students that would have never otherwise met,” she says. “They develop great friendships through the common cause of volunteering.”

Students typically meet several times before leaving for their trip, and share a unique bonding experience through it, says Turnowchyk.

“You really get to know one another, and to appreciate everyone’s strengths and weaknesses so we could tailor our work to that and really work as a team,” she says. “While you’re all here, it’s really an intense experience.”

In Manno’s Habitat for Humanity group, students formed a tight bond over the course of their week-long experience.

“They wanted to do everything together,” she says. “There weren’t factions within the group—everybody wants to include everybody, which is really great to see. They’re learning a lot and they’re working really hard. They’re the first ones on the site in the morning and the last ones to leave at the end of the day, but they’re having a great time, too.”

That might explain why many come back several times of the course of their Lehigh career.

“We have an incredibly high retention rate,” Hernandez says. “Some of the students on this year’s SpringSERVE participated in more than five trips while students at Lehigh.”

For Haque, the motivation is clear: “It’s very humbling, and it really helps you to put things in perspective. Yeah, you meet great people and have great friendships, but these experiences really help you realize that there are a lot of people in need out there, and to realize how important it is to help. So many of us are really fortunate to be able to go to a school like Lehigh, and that makes it even more important to give back.”

-- Linda Harbrecht


Posted on Thursday, March 05, 2009

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