Warm, sunny days lounging on sandy, white beaches with friends wasn't calling the names of these college students this spring break. Instead, they decided to pick up power tools and paintbrushes to help people in need in the Amarillo community.
For the past two weeks, Amarillo Habitat for Humanity has hosted Collegiate Challenge, an alternative spring break program with Habitat International that allows students ages 16-25 to volunteer their time for a good cause. Established 23 years ago, nearly 200,000 students have forgone vacation to participate in Collegiate Challenge.
“It’s an opportunity for high school and college students to give up their spring break and go and stay with a Habitat affiliate somewhere in the United States and do construction for the week,” says Sasha Renee, family services coordinator at the Amarillo branch.
The Amarillo affiliate has hosted students for more than eight years, says Becky Davis, development director. This past year, Amarillo welcomed 10 students and two faculty members from Totino-Grace High School in Fridley, Minn., but this year two groups of college students visited, impacting three families and 175 young students.
From March 4-11, students from Widener University in Chester, Pa. assisted with three projects during their week-long stay, including a home with A Brush With Kindness, which focuses on exterior renovations, and a Women Build. The students also painted rooms at the Maverick Boys & Girls Club of Amarillo.
“They were really great,” exclaims Sasha, her voice nearly overwhelmed by the buzzing of power tools and pounding of hammers in the background. “They really worked hard. They enjoyed it and we enjoyed them. It was a great experience.”
This week, 16 students and four faculty members from Montgomery County Community College in Blue Bell, Pa. have flown to Amarillo to labor eight-hour days for families deserving of a safe, decent home, families that may not possess the financial or physical means to buy or build a house without aid.
“A lot of our families are living in places where they’re paying 6, 7, $800 a month for apartments or homes that don’t have heat, and the windows don’t close, and they’re infested with cockroaches and there are water leaks and gas leaks,” Sasha describes. “It’s really not a safe environment for anybody to live, but much less children that are still developing and growing and learning. This really improves the quality of life for those families.”
Paying for their own transportation, food and lodging through fundraisers and donations, the students and faculty members take on whatever projects Habitat has in store for them, from stripping paint and caulking nail holes to replacing windows and installing carpet and countertops.
The two homes the Montgomery County Community College crew are working on are vacant Habitat homes built at least 15 years ago in need of repair and renovation. The first Amarillo Habitat house, constructed in the 1980s, resides next to the neighboring yellow and gray houses swarming with students on a brisk, foggy morning.
While some students are familiar with volunteer work, some are novices to community service and Habitat, like Montgomery County Community College student, Kelly Tascarella.
“This is my first Habitat experience,” the 18-year-old declares, taking a break from working in the kitchen of one of the houses. “I think it’s a great cause and a lot of fun. You get to meet a lot of great people. You get to learn a lot of new things, how to make stuff and how to do construction. I love doing this kind of stuff and I was glad to help out.”
Kelly says she intends to get involved in her local chapter of Habitat of Humanity back in Pennsylvania when she returns because of her positive time spent in Amarillo these past few days.
“I want to look up the stores in my area and see if I can volunteer because I think this is really great,” she says. “I think our community should benefit from this, too.”
Kelly considers herself one of the lucky applicants to be accepted into the spring break program, she says. In total, 45 Montgomery students submitted essays and applications in hopes of volunteering, but that number was whittled down to 16 based on GPA and volunteer experience, says Jenna Klaus, assistant director of civic and community engagement.
“Habitat is a great organization,” Jenna proclaims. “We try to get [students] connected locally with the Habitat chapter we have right near the college. But I like to once a year get them out and experience service on a national level. For them, it’s a chance to experience service on a bigger scale.”
Throughout the three spring breaks Jenna has helped coordinate the Collegiate Challenge, this is the largest and most diverse group she has organized, attributing the increase in numbers to this generation of college students.
“I think more students want to get involved in volunteering,” says Jenna, who has spent 10 of her spring breaks in all doing community service with Habitat. “It’s a different culture, this group. They want to give back more. They want to experience something different in college. It’s a neat way to meet people who have similar interests.”
Although Jenna mainly seeks veteran volunteers for the program, she also encourages students with little or no community involvement to apply.
“We have a couple of students that have said, ‘I have no leadership experience. I’m not involved in a club, but I want to start getting involved and this looks like a neat way to get involved at college,’” she recalls. “So we’ve got a mix. We have some student leaders and then we have some that have never stepped foot in the student leadership office before.”
In addition to working on the construction sites, Montgomery students have also maintained a blog detailing their daily experiences with stories and photos.
However, it’s not just volunteer experience that students gain during the Collegiate Challenge, Sasha says. Whether it’s touching up a paint-peeled classroom or mending and building a future residence, students are exposed to vital skills, social, physical and mental, they can develop and hone.
“It gives them an opportunity to get out of the classroom,” Sasha explains. “They learn. They come to us and they’ve never used power tools or they’ve never painted before. It gives them the opportunity to learn those skills. Anybody who learns how to do that stuff, it’s going to benefit them, whether it’s helping someone else out or using these skills when they’re a homeowner someday.”
Check out Montgomery County Community College student's Collegiate Challenge blog as they finish up their spring break.
by Drew Belle Zerby
After graduating from LSU in 2009, Drew Belle worked as a page designer in north Louisiana until moving to Amarillo and joining AGN Media in late 2010. In her spare time, she loves to read, travel and spout out useless movie trivia.