COLUMBIA — Michelle Fiesta spent her 2011 spring break in Detroit. She was not there to go sightseeing or visit family. Fiesta was there to serve.
Her MU Alternative Spring Break group stayed in an old rectory of a church. The group volunteered at food banks and tried its hand at urban gardening, planting vegetables later intended for sale.
Arriving in Detroit, Fiesta and her group were aware that it was suffering from economic decline, Fiesta said. They expected to see a crime-ridden city with little to no hope for rebirth. But they found community members ready to save their hometown.
"The trip really busted all the stereotypes," said Fiesta, now a senior in psychology and anthropology from St. Louis.
With MU's spring break coming up in the last week of March, students are getting ready to serve in a variety of ways, through growing programs such as Alternative Spring Break and, new to spring-break service this year, Engineers Without Borders.
MU program third-largest
When it was created in 1991, MU's Alternative Spring Break program sent out seven groups of students. This year, 39 groups are going — up from 25 last year and its largest number ever. Thirty-six groups will go this month; two went during the winter break this year; and one went to the Dominican Republic in late January.
Caleb Phillips, president of MU's Alternative Spring Break program, said the number of students participating throughout the year is 478, up from 300 last year. More than 1,050 students applied, up from 525 last year.
This makes it the third-largest college program in the country, said Fiesta, logistics chairwoman for Alternative Spring Break at MU.
The rating is based on the number of students who go on these trips throughout the year and comes from the Break Away program; the national alternative spring breaks organization includes more than 100 chapter schools, more than 400 nonprofit partners and hundreds of individual members worldwide.
Phillips, a senior in journalism from Savannah, Mo., said that next year, they hope for 53 or more trips, with the goal to become the largest alternative break program in the country.
The organization is completely student-led. Students find the locations, the housing and the organizations they want to help. Groups are going to locations including Tampa, Fla., Denver, Brooklyn, N.Y., and Chicago.
The types of service the students do is up to them. A group going to Columbia, S.C., will work with a growing Hispanic population in the area. The students plan to teach English to Spanish-speaking adults, work with children and lead healthy-living workshops.
A group going to Clarksville, Tenn., plans to visit a military base on the Tennessee-Kentucky border to work with children whose parents have been deployed.
"It opens your eyes to the world," said Phillips, who has gone on trips to Kissimmee, Fla., in 2012, Charleston, S.C., in 2011, and the Dominican Republic this year. "It's a life-changing experience."
Engineers Without Borders
New to spring break service this year is MU's Engineers Without Borders, a student chapter of a national organization that provides consulting and design services of sustainable engineering projects to developing communities.
Group members go to one location several times on what they call assessment trips, to make contact with the community they are helping and collect data. The information is used to create a design that will help solve a problem there.
Next, the group brings the design to the community laborers. During the building, members from MU's organization are around to supervise and make sure the design is correct and the problem is solved.
The group started in 2007, but implementing a design was blocked due to problems with communication and leadership transitions in the Brazilian community with which they were working, group president Daniel Nabelek said.
This time it will be different. Six students and two professional mentors will travel to Ciudad España, Honduras, to implement their designs to rehabilitate an existing waste water treatment plant.
The designs will affect not only Ciudad España, which has about 10,000 residents, but also two or three towns the same size downstream.
Justin Distler, an executive member of the group and a freshman in mechanical engineering from Jefferson City, gave some insight into what the group does — what he calls the teach-to-fish mentality.
"We don't just build houses and leave," Distler said. "Our services are requested by the community and our work is done one on one with the people."
Nabelek said doing projects like this puts the world in a new perspective.
"It's not like looking at it on TV," said Nabelek, a graduate student in electrical engineering from Columbia. "You actually see the slums and the supermarkets that have people with guns as you drive by."
Service keeps on giving
Fiesta sees her generation as constantly connected to the wider world through television and the Internet — they cannot escape the news, she said. She thinks that makes her generation more aware of how interconnected the world is.
"We grew up in a global community," Fiesta said. "We know what is going on in the world."
For many of these students, then, the giving doesn't end once they return from spring break.
Phillips and his 2011 Alternative Spring Break group started Mizzou Unity Coalition because of their experience with children with disabilities in Charleston, S.C. Mizzou Unity Coalition brings MU students together with people with disabilities in the Columbia area.
In another example of carry-over, that group that went to the Dominican Republic this year has since raised money for four children there to go to school. They were able to raise enough money to allow the children to keep attending school through the summer, Phillips said.
"The coolest part is the passion the students bring," Phillips said. "They continue serving beyond their trips. It is the students that makes this program so great."
Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.