Some students choose to volunteer over break

By Andrew Shull

Michele Miklos wanted to spend her spring break somewhere a little warmer than Pittsburgh, but… Michele Miklos wanted to spend her spring break somewhere a little warmer than Pittsburgh, but she didn’t go to a sunny beach town.

Instead she braved the rain — and much to her disappointment ­— the cold to clear hiking paths at Douthat State Park in Virginia with four other students.

Like more than 60 other Pitt students, Miklos chose to go on an alternative spring break.

The Student Volunteer Outreach at Pitt conceived the trips as an alternative to more-conventional spring break trips — like those to New Orleans, Miami or Atlantic City. SVO has been organizing these trips for 15 years now, and alternative spring break is a popular option among students, said Terrence Milani, the office’s director.

Last week students volunteered in six different locations throughout Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee and Washington D.C. The trips’ missions varied widely: Students who traveled to Piney Grove Preserve in Virginia worked to maintain the habitat of the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker, whereas the trip to D.C. focused on feeding the homeless.

“It’s meant to be more than a service project,” Milani said of alternative break. “It’s supposed to last a lifetime.”

The trips range from $200 dollars, for the trip to Camp Sequanota in Jennerstown, Pa., to $420, for the trip to Washington, D.C. The price goes toward lodging, food and transportation.

Miklos, who said she didn’t want to spend an excessive amount of money on spring break, thought the costs were reasonable.

This was Miklos’ second alternative spring break, and her first time serving as a trip leader. She said she went on a trip to Camp Sequanota two years ago.

“It was nice to do manual labor; to work on something that didn’t exhaust your brain,” she said.

Every trip had a group leader who had previously been on an alternative spring break. Group leaders were selected by SVO, and went on the trips for half-price.

Miklos said while serving as a group leader she organized pre-trip outings for the students, worked with the sponsoring agency — as well as SVO — and encouraged the volunteers to keep reflection journals.

Her trip to Douthat State Park had an environmental focus. The five students who went on that trip worked to reclear a trail that had been originally built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the New Deal in the 1930s.

“Our goal was to reach the top of the mountain, and we did. It was about a half mile of trail [that we cleaned],” she said.

Four out of the six trips had an environmental focus, the exceptions being the trip to Washington, D.C., and the trip to the Appalachian South Folklife Center in Pipestem, W.Va., where students helped impoverished and elderly rural residents with home repairs and other service projects.

The trips to the Cumberland Trail in Soddy Daisy Tennessee and Camp Sequanota both focused on trail restoration.

Of course, not all students are interested in spending their spring breaks doing volunteer work, though some said that they are interested in participating next year.

John Battaglia, a junior, said that he spent spring break in his hometown of Buffalo, N.Y., “enjoying the warm weather and getting a tan.”

He said that for his senior year he would consider going on an alternative break given the specifics of the projects. He said that a warm weather destination would be a plus, although clearing trails wouldn’t be for him.

Another junior, Mike Hamilton, said that he would also be looking for another option next spring. He spent his first two spring breaks skiing in Colorado and said that a case of strep throat cut short his plans to go to the Big East tournament this year.

Each trip had a nonprofit sponsor, some of them religious organizations. Camp Sequanota, for example, is run by the Allegheny Lutheran Social Ministry and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The trip to D.C. was organized by The Youth Service Opportunities Project, which has Quaker roots. But

Cathleen Connor, the alternative break coordinator at SVO, said that neither trip had any denominational goal.

Each trip was supposed to last four work days and include one day off for sightseeing, hiking or other activities, Milani said.

Miklos said that the group did not follow that schedule closely, and instead of working for four days and having one day off, they ended up working half days on Thursday and Friday.

Weather was also an issue. A rain storm hit most of the region last week.

Miklos said that rain hampered their group’s efforts on Wednesday, and — while she chose to go south in the hopes of finding some warmer weather — it did not pan out the way she thought it would.

But the lodging was far better than she thought it would be. She and her fellow trail-clearers stayed in a lodge at the State Park.