SPRINGFIELD — The skin disorder left the 2-year-old looking like a burn victim with withered flesh and missing hair. "She was so happy, the happiest little thing ever. She was my favorite," said Elise Stefan, an Evangel University nursing student and part of a 21-member team that went to India on a medical trip over spring break.
"It definitely confirmed that this is what I want to do," she said.
While still rare, Stefan is among a growing number of college students participating in alternative spring breaks. Instead of partying, they volunteer. Some travel overseas to work with child prostitutes, others help out at soup kitchens or restore America's parks. There are many reasons why this appeals to college students and benefits the community where they volunteer and their hometown.
Interest in alternative spring breaks at Evangel University has more than doubled in a decade.
In 2000, Evangel had 80 participants, and 170 in 2010.
That's a national trend, said Jill Piacitelli, executive director of Break Away, an organization that works with about a third of the nation's alternative spring break programs.
In 2000, Break Away tracked an estimated 15,000 students going on alternative breaks. In 2010, it was nearly 72,000.
"We've seen a consistent 10-15 percent growth rate each year in the number of trips per campus program and in the number of overall students participating," she said.
Whether or not a program grows seems to depend in part on how it's organized.
Some schools pay part or none of the cost and those programs seem more likely to grow. Other schools, like Drury University, pay for the trips, so there's typically a limited budget and the number of students doesn't fluctuate much. Drury recently took 13 students to Los Angeles. Student Union Board adviser Allison Griffith, a sponsor, said they worked at an urban outreach center, fed people a hot meal, handed out groceries and helped assemble bunk beds for families at risk of losing their children.
Sophomore Garrett Hillman says the trip taught him the obstacles people face living in a city like LA.
Aside from finding a useful way to spend spring break, he thinks the travel aspect appeals to students.
"Especially at Drury, since we're so interested in global community," he said. A lasting impression Before she graduates, Allison Koch, a senior at the College of the Ozarks, wanted to spend a spring break volunteering. She joined fellow students at a Navajo reservation in March.
"For me, it was an opportunity to serve and give back instead of traditional spring break of going to the beach and getting a tan or shopping," Koch said. "It was a team-building experience."
On her trip, Stefan learned the importance of compassion. It's a lesson she'll carry into her nursing career. While some criticize Americans for going overseas instead of working domestically, there is knowledge they can gain abroad that they can't here.
At Missouri State University, 11 students spent their break on international service-learning trips in El Salvador and Nicaragua. These are credit classes and curriculum-based. They are not the same as alternative spring breaks, although some benefits are similar.
Dietitian students went to El Salvador where they could study malnutrition at a level that they would not be able to locally, said Elizabeth Strong, associate director, citizenship and service-learning.
Agriculture students who went to Nicaragua can learn different farming techniques and be exposed to another culture, she said. Carmen Boyd, dietetics program director who led the trip to El Salvador, said the hands-on training gives them more experience in a week than a semester in a classroom.
For MSU's alternative spring break, students volunteered locally, said Jeremy Schenk, director of student engagement at MSU.
Schenk would love to see MSU expand its alternative spring break, but with budget cuts, it's unlikely right now.
The interest is there, though.
"There is a passion to tackle social-justice issues when you provide that opportunity," he said.
Past disasters inspire
So when did young people become so civic-minded?
After Hurricane Katrina, a lot of schools launched spring breaks around disaster relief, says Samantha Giacobozzi, programs director for Break Away.
Trips to New Orleans are still a staple, she said.
An increasing number of colleges offer or encourage such trips, she said. Overall, young people are volunteering more, too.
The number of young adults, ages 16-24, who volunteer rose from 7.8 million in 2007 to 8.2 million in 2008, according to Corporation for National & Community Service in Washington D.C., which keeps a comprehensive collection of volunteer information.
This benefits the country and communities.
People who volunteer are more likely to donate to charitable causes than non-volunteers, according to that research.
Before the Drury students left for LA, they spent a day in Springfield volunteering with Habitat for Humanity to get free tickets from Disney's "Give a Day, Get a Day" promotion.
And while MSU students helped with hurricane relief in the past, the past two years they have volunteered locally.
"Alternative spring breaks in service or mission work have become more popular because (students) have been able to experience something sweeter than self- indulgence," Koch said.