Brian KirschnerContact Email:
A group of nine USP students headed south for Spring Break along with thousands of other college students from around the country this past March, but with slightly different intentions than most of their colleagues. The group was headed to the small coastal neighborhood of Sabine Pass, just outside of Port Arthur, Texas, to do a week’s worth of labor for Habitat for Humanity.
Organized by Lizz Gable, director of the Center for Community Connections in the Division of Student Affairs, the trip was USP’s fourth-annual alternative spring break, Help Hope Humanity. “I choose Texas because I wanted it to be warm–it didn’t work,” said Gable. “It was cold all week.”
Although the weather failed to provide the kind of winter retreat they were hoping for, Gable and the nine students still made the most of their trip. They stayed in a Port Arthur YMCA’s annex building—dubbed the “blue shack”—sharing rustic accommodations with other college students on a similar mission. “It reminded me of summer camp,” said Preyanka Makadia PharmD’12. “Living in those conditions really contributed to the entire experience because I learned to appreciate what I have and it put things into perspective.”
The area of Texas the students visited is still recovering from effects of 2005’s Hurricane Rita, now three years after the storm devastated the low-lying area with harsh winds and flooding. “It was difficult to believe how much damage one hurricane can cause,” said Makadia, “but at the same time it was empowering to know that our efforts were making a difference for people in need.” One of the homes the students worked on is being built for a grandmother who has been living patiently in a trailer beside the construction site since the hurricane struck. “She was really thankful that Habitat was helping her,” said Gable. “She has been waiting for years.”
The students spent the week doing finishing work on two homes built for families that have been living in FEMA trailers since Rita. For the first three days of the trip, the students painted the interiors of the homes—and at times each other. The remainder of the week was spent moving piles of debris and fixing the elevated homes’ railings to meet building codes. “Despite being different from the work I was used to, it felt good to know that a family was going to be able to live in a home I contributed to,” said Adam Haydt BC’09, student leader for the trip.
This year’s trip was the fourth-annual alternative spring break organized by the Center for Community Connections. The program’s pilot venture in 2005 stayed within Philadelphia’s borders, but seeing the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina provided the impetus to take a broader approach in 2006. In response to that tragedy, Gable organized a group to travel to Louisiana to help with the rescue effort. Last year, USP collaborated with Habitat for their trip to Richmond, Virginia, and was very pleased with the partnership. “The key term in our mission statement is ‘civic engagement,’” said Gable. “I hope to help students see how their actual hands-on work can make a change in someone’s life.”
Further adding to the program’s success was an unexpected grant from the Barra Foundation—a private, not-for-profit philanthropic organization founded by Robert L. McNeil, Jr., that primarily serves the five-county area of Greater Philadelphia. The grant made it much easier for the students to participate by minimizing the amount of fundraising and money they had to put forth for the trip.
“The other students and I did something meaningful over spring break and broadened our perspectives about different communities,” reflected Makadia. “We had the opportunity to explore Texas and have fun, while also building housing for deserving families.”