Spring Break Altruism

Volunteer "alternative spring breaks" growing in popularity

Though it's been a year and a half since hurricanes Katrina and Rita swept through the Gulf Coast region, the need to rebuild is as great as ever. "The popular conception is that things are better or OK here, but they're not," says Noah Hopkins, a Lubbock native who has been involved with relief efforts in Jackson County, Miss., through AmeriCorps' National Civilian Community Corps (www.americorps.org). NCCC volunteer teams are typically dispersed throughout the country, says Hopkins, "but 80 to 90 percent are all just focused on the Gulf Coast right now. That's where the greatest need is."

With volunteer numbers falling as the hurricanes grow fainter in memory, relief organizations throughout the region are hoping for a spring break boon. "Alternative spring breaks" – spent volunteering rather than sipping cocktails on the beach – have gotten so popular in the last few years that at some universities, students must camp out to secure spots on the coveted trips. This phenomenon has contributed to the millennial generation's much-touted reputation of late for social consciousness, a trait many link to the unprecedented string of large-scale disasters – 9/11, the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, and the Gulf Coast hurricanes – that they've experienced at an impressionable age. To meet the demand, alternative spring break organizations like Break Away (www.alter nativebreaks.org) have grown in size, and even MTV has gotten in on the action, organizing trips and providing a "Do-It-Yourself ASB" section on its Web site.

Last year, 35,000 students participated in ASB trips, which proved particularly valuable to the hurricane-relief efforts. The "rolling spring break" period (between Feb. 18 and April 25) accounted for 40% of the National Relief Network's (www.nrn.org) year-round volunteerism in the region, a trend echoed by other organizations. While ASB trips offer a way for students to spend their vacations doing something worthwhile, they still require money and a propensity for planning ahead, two things even millennial college students often lack. UT's Alternative Spring Break club tries to keep costs low, but trips still require registration weeks ahead. That's why Hopkins' NCCC team is trying to get the word out that they'll accept volunteers at any time.

Working out of the Operation TLC Volunteer Center, Hopkins' crew runs a distribution warehouse, matching people with resources they need, be it furniture or labor. They help the citizens of Jackson County rebuild their homes and work as case workers for needs assessments. Time is of the essence for Operation TLC, as it will return to its original function as a recreation center this summer, so right now the organization is providing shelter for free and meals for $6 a day. Those interested in volunteering should visit www.operationtlc.org for details.

ANTI-DEATH PENALTY ALTERNATIVE SPRING BREAK features issue-education, skill-building workshops, lobbying training, and panels with speakers such as Shujaa Graham, an exonerated former death row inmate. Monday-Friday, March 12-16. Various locations, including UT Campus and the Capitol. www.springbreakalternative.org.

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