Some Ga. students spend spring break helping others

Many metro Atlanta college students begin their spring break this week, and for an increasing number of them, the beach is taking a backseat to building homes or other volunteer work.

Several colleges are assisting students in what’s commonly called Alternative Spring Break, which the students say is a welcome opportunity to serve others. Some students say the volunteer work is also helping them explore possible career paths and grow personally.

Colleges and universities supporting such efforts include Emory, Georgia State, Georgia Tech, Kennesaw State, Spelman and the University of Georgia. Some schools help fund the volunteer work. In many cases, students raise some or all of the money themselves for travel.

Spelman College’s previous Alternative Spring Break volunteer work has included cleanup activities in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, education projects in Belize and community service work in Atlanta.

“Helping somebody during spring break is something I’d rather do,” explained Ayanna Troutman, 20, a Spelman junior majoring in psychology who is planning to spend the vacation working on a project helping the homeless in Washington, D.C.

Troutman and junior Shawna Howard were among a group of Spelman students who visited Flint, Mich., last year during spring break to assist that community’s recovery from its contaminated-water crisis. Howard, 21, initially planned last year to join friends on a vacation, but “it kind of fell through the cracks once we heard about Flint.”

This year, Spelman faced a problem: Too many students wanted to participate in the volunteer work in Washington. The number of applicants exceeded the openings in just an hour.

Georgia Tech had a similar challenge. It had a record number of applicants for its Alternative Service Break. Tech has about 160 students participating this year in its program. About 30 participated in the first year of the program, 2011. This year’s spring-break service trips include Habitat for Humanity projects in Florida and North Carolina and teaching English in the Dominican Republic. Third-year student Emelia Funnell will help lead a group of Tech students on a community-service project at a school in Nicaragua.

Funnell, 20, from Alpharetta, has been involved in Alternative Service Break since her first year at Tech. She credits the experiences with helping her flesh out a future goal of designing medical technologies in developing countries. Funnell, a self-described introvert, is now the recruitment director of ASB, encouraging students to get involved.

“It helped me break out of my shell,” she said.

Last year in Flint, the Spelman students volunteered as what they described as “short-term mentors” at a couple of public schools. They worked at a food bank where they learned more about the water crisis and were involved in the community revitalization efforts. Howard and Troutman have kept in touch with some of the students they met in Flint.

Howard said last year’s visit helped her better understand environmental racism.

“How do you justify not providing someone something as simple as clean water? … It was heartbreaking to me.”

Georgia Tech’s Funnell said the experience has her considering more volunteering when she establishes her career.

“We’ll see one day,” she said.