COLUMBIA — A contingent of MU students will trek to distant locations for spring break next week, but they will not be sunbathing on beaches.
They are participants in Alternative Spring Break, a student-led organization that sends volunteers across the nation to complete service projects.
In its 20th year, the organization set a record for the number of participants. Last year 88 students were sent to eight locations throughout the United States, but that total more than doubled with the 190 participants and 17 trips planned this year, according to the organization's website.
Notable trips include a visit to New Orleans where students will help to rebuild the French Quarter after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Students in Ohio will work with service dogs that help disabled individuals, while volunteers in South Dakota will construct houses for Habitat for Humanity to support a Native American reservation experiencing a housing crisis.
The steep increase in participation is not based on luck. Raha Obaei, president of the organization, said the executive board set a goal of 400 applicants this year, but the overall number of applicants far exceeded this figure.
Organizers placed stickers around campus, wrote messages on chalkboards in classrooms and networked with other student organizations to increase involvement, Obaei said. This "marketing influx," as she called it, worked well.
"I really do believe that these trips and opportunities are life-changing," Obaei said. "People I've talked to have said that it's changed what they want to do with their lives."
Last year, Obaei visited Birmingham, Ala., to volunteer for AIDS outreach efforts. Obaei called the trip "incredible" and said their work helped to humanize the issue of AIDS and HIV.
Liz Augustine, an executive board member for the organization, said people learn things they never knew on these trips.
"These trips are very humbling and definitely work to put things into perspective for college students," Augustine said.
The changed perspectives of these young men and women often lead them to come back and change their majors, said Bryan Goers, an adviser for the organization and a graduate assistant in the Center for Leadership Development and Community Involvement.
"We strive really hard to find trips that differ from experiences people can get in Missouri and Columbia," Goers said. "We are exposing these people to populations and people they are not used to. It helps them when they come back to be more active in the community."
Goers said he believes that Alternative Spring Break is one of the best leadership programs on campus. Volunteers from past trips can apply to become site leaders, which offers each student the unique opportunity to manage the volunteers and lead their respective groups during the week.
According to its website, students interested in Alternative Spring Break must apply, and if accepted, pay a $200 fee to go on a trip. The rest of the money needed for the trips comes from fundraising efforts by the students.