Not Your Typical Spring Break

Rollins students opt for service-focused spring break trips.

As part of an Alternative Spring Break Trip, Nelson Torres ’15 works with students at a school for children with special needs in Great Abaco Island in the Bahamas. (Photo by Meredith Hein) As part of an Alternative Spring Break Trip, Nelson Torres ’15 works with students at a school for children with special needs in Great Abaco Island in the Bahamas. (Photo by Meredith Hein)

Every spring hundreds of thousands of students from all over the country find their way to Panama Beach or Daytona Beach or Puerto Vallarta or South Padre Island, an annual booze-soaked, bikini-clad tradition ingrained into pop culture and celebrated by the likes of MTV.

But for an estimated 85,000 American college students, spring break this year was about something more than sunbathing or hookups. These students ditched the traditional spring break for what are called “alternative spring breaks,” in which they forego vacations for something a little more meaningful. They go somewhere around the world and participate in service work—rebuilding trails and working with kids.

Five years ago, Rollins College offered its first alternative spring break. Six students signed up. This year, there were five alternative spring breaks, and more than 70 students.

Alex Daubert ’15 is one of them. In the fall, he got a taste of service-oriented travel, taking a weekend trip through the Rollins Immersion: Citizen’s Take Action Program to work for Habitat for Humanity in St. Petersburg, along with 14 other students. “That got my interest piqued in the immersion program,” he says. “I’d always wanted to do one. After I’d done one and lived it and had a great experience, I signed up to be a facilitator.”

What that meant, essentially, was that he and two other students would select and plan a weeklong alternative spring break trip. They were told they could plan a trip anywhere within a 10-hour driving radius, which gets you as far as New Orleans to the west and Raleigh to the north. They browsed a database of potential projects offered by the nonprofit company Break-A-Way Alternative Break Network. Their trip could focus any one of a number of areas—poverty, homelessness, crime, education, the environment, whatever spoke to them.

In all, there were five alternative spring breaks for Rollins students this year. Thirteen Rollins students went to the Florida Keys, where, working alongside experts, they learned about the environmental issues facing this archipelago, and how human interactions affect nature. Another nine students went to West Virginia, where they repaired and weather-fitted homes in rural areas of one of the country’s poorest states. Fifteen students went to Chicago, where they witnessed firsthand the effects of inner-city poverty on the relationship between high school dropout rates and juvenile crime. Fifteen students, meanwhile, went to Great Abaco Island in the Bahamas, where they worked with teachers and students at a school for children with special needs.

Courtney Banker ’16 cleans up the Cumberland Trail in Crossville, Tennessee. Courtney Banker ’16 cleans up the Cumberland Trail in Crossville, Tennessee. Daubert’s group chose Tennessee—specifically, the Cumberland Trail in Crossville, Tennessee, a trail that, when completed, will span the 300 miles between the Cumberland Gap National Park and the Tennessee River Gorge.

“We kept coming back to [the fact that] we wanted to do something involving the environment,” Daubert says. “Something outdoors, and tailor it to what we expect the service to be.”

Of all the alternative spring breaks, the Tennessee trip was perhaps the most physically demanding. The students used fire rakes to clear the trail of leaf clover, hand clippers and pocket saws to clear limbs and bushes, and mattocks to level the trail by cutting into rock steps and footbridges. They also installed water bars to control erosion and marked the trail by painting blazes on trees.

Daubert says the manual labor appealed to him—“You could see what you were doing.” And yet, “It turned out to be more physically demanding than we expected.”

A typical day found them waking up at 7 a.m. to the “very jubilant wake-up call” of a man blasting a bullhorn, says Lauren La Porte ’13, one of the 14 Rollins students who went on the Tennessee trip. They had breakfast at the mess hall of the lodge where they were staying. (There were groups from two other schools, including the University of Central Florida, doing this same immersion program.) They left the lodge for the trail by 8:15. It took them 30 minutes to get to the bottom of the trail, and then another 45 minutes to hike the mile and a half to the top. When they arrived, their work began. For the next two hours, they cleared brush and leveled the trail before breaking for lunch—usually overseeing a gorgeous vista. Then, more work.

By 3:30 p.m., the group usually arrived back at the lodge to shower and rest. Dinner was at 5, followed by an evening educational program—one night, someone from a nearby aquarium came by; another night, they saw a presentation about the area’s birds of prey, some of which they witnessed out on the trail.

“One of the biggest things about the immersion program is that they connected it to an educational piece,” Daubert says, “making sure it’s not a one-time thing.”

Afterward, the Rollins group split up to reflect, bringing their experience full-circle through discussions of service, learning, and next steps as leaders committed to the environment ).

“Every night, they sat around a bonfire and talked. “As the week progressed, we got into more deeper personal issues, any insecurities we had. We would find ways to connect to each other,” La Porte says.

Check out Local news Channel 13's coverage of the alternative spring breaks.