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For this party over spring break, bring your own hammer
25 February 2005
by Jane Engle

John Kinder was cagey about what happened on spring break two years ago.

"I had a good time" was all he would tell me about his visit to Panama City Beach, Fla., a popular stop on the party circuit.

But this spring break, the sophomore at Indiana University in Bloomington plans to pursue a different beach activity: studying sea turtles as a volunteer on a conservation project in Costa Rica.

"I didn't want to wake up each day with a hangover," he joked.

Kinder is among a small but growing number of college students signing up for alternatives to the beer-and-beach busts that are spring break staples.

These students say volunteer trips help them make new friends, see exotic places and burnish résumés with real-life experiences. They often earn college credit too.

Because Kinder's trip, organized by the university, is educational, he said, his mother will finance it. The trip could cost as much as $1,000.

"Otherwise, I'd have to pay for it," said Kinder, who is majoring in environmental management.

Did I mention that the student volunteers also help make the world a better place? They build homes for the poor, clear debris from park trails, help protect endangered species and much more.

Each spring, dozens of students from USC, for instance, journey to a Navajo reservation near Bluff, Utah, to paint houses, said Melissa Gaeke, director of the USC Volunteer Center.

On the center's other trips, students can build furniture for a new school in Guatemala or plant trees on Isla Mujeres, near Cancún, Mexico, among other activities.

Participants pay $125 to $600 to go on the trips and get no college credit, Gaeke said.

Some return again and again.

Two years ago, Manuel Lopez, freshly transferred to USC, signed up for the Isla Mujeres trip to meet new people. It worked.

"It's intense," he said. "You come back almost as best friends."

Now a senior, Lopez, a political science major, co-leads the trips.

Finding the right spring-break volunteer activity can be a challenge. There doesn't appear to be a central clearinghouse for information on them.

Many trips are organized by universities primarily for their own students. Others are run by service groups that draw from the public. Some are available through student travel agencies.

Other groups offering volunteer spring breaks include:

  • Habitat for Humanity International: This longtime ecumenical Christian ministry, based in Americus, Ga., recruits volunteers to build homes for the poor. Since the late 1980s, it has offered spring break trips called Collegiate Challenge. More than 10,500 students are expected to participate this year, double the number of a decade ago.
  • I-to-I Volunteer Travel: I-to-I, founded in 1994, with international headquarters in Leeds, England, and a North American office in Denver, describes itself as a "travel and training organization dedicated to helping disadvantaged communities and ecosystems around the world."
  • STA Travel: STA, founded in 1979, with its North American headquarters in Los Angeles, claims to be the largest full-service student travel agency network in the world. It has more than 400 outlets, mostly on or near college campuses, in 20 countries.

"How many people want to spend their spring breaks working?" asked Karen Stapley, STA spokeswoman in Los Angeles. "My answer is not very many. The average student would prefer to relax and party."

Of 100,000 North American customers that STA books each year for spring break, Stapley said, fewer than 100 choose volunteer vacations. But interest is growing, she added; until about three years ago, STA's catalog didn't even list such trips.