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In our opinion: Spring break service

Published: Monday, April 1 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

Youth is a time in which human beings set patterns of behavior and discover things that bring lasting value. The spring break culture that suggests it's OK to let go of restraints for one week each year and engage in dangerous behavior is a a lie. Think of how much more uplifting and productive it is, for the students and those they help, to spend that time engaged in meaningful service.

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Spring break offers an opportunity for college students across the nation to leave their studies behind for a week, and too many view that as an invitation to abandon morality and common sense, as well. But thankfully, some young people are seeing spring break as a chance to provide constructive community service that will enrich the lives of others.

For example, Boston University offers an official Alternative Spring Breaks program, where students are matched up with more than 30 different charitable organizations to provide meaningful service away from the classroom. The program attracted nearly 400 students this year, and projects included rebuilding a community garden in Reading, Pa., landscaping and maintaining trails along the Florida coast, building affordable housing in West Virginia, and constructing wheelchair ramps in Nashville.

One of the students who participated in the Nashville project wrote this about his experience: "Driving back to Boston, I realized that the most amazing feat of the week hadn't necessarily been the five ramps we'd built, but the fact that a group that had begun as 11 strangers had — in just a week's time — become a family."

Those are the kinds of friendships that can't be found in traditionally hedonistic spring break experiences. And Boston isn't the only place where this is happening. Local universities have similar programs.

The University of Utah has been planning and implementing acts of service through its own Alternative Spring Breaks program since 1997, which now includes opportunities during fall break as well. The mission is "to engage University of Utah students, staff, and faculty in community service and experiential learning while promoting holistic wellness by dispatching teams of college students to distant communities over spring break."

U of U students can choose between visits to Las Vegas to work with at-risk youth or a trip to Vancouver, B.C., for an in-depth look at the Canadian health care system, with an emphasis on issues of mental illness, homelessness, and HIV/AIDS. Or they can travel to Portland to clean and recycle used bicycles that are then given to children in need. There are several other projects on tap as well, and students with service ideas of their own can volunteer as site leaders and spearhead their own projects. All trips are drug- and alcohol-free.

"Spring break lasts seven days," reads the U of U website, "[but] Alternative Spring Break lasts a lifetime." The same might be said of the more hedonistic and, unfortunately, well-publicized versions of spring break, only in a negative way. College health officials in various parts of the country report a rise in testing for sexually transmitted diseases each year after spring break. Excessive alcohol consumption leads to a host of problems.

Youth is a time in which human beings set patterns of behavior and discover things that bring lasting value. The spring break culture that suggests it's OK to let go of restraints for one week each year and engage in dangerous behavior is a a lie. Think of how much more uplifting and productive it is, for the students and those they help, to spend that time engaged in meaningful service.

We applaud the efforts of those behind these alternative spring break programs and recommend them to any student willing to get involved and make a difference.

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