Sun-drenched beaches may be the top destinations for many college students on spring break.
But some headed to the Cuyahoga Valley National Park to dig ditches and lay drainage pipe.
University of Akron seniors Abby Gerdes and Nichole Houze are among 31 who were repairing trails Friday through today in the park’s second annual Alternative Spring Break.
“They walk away from something thinking, ‘I had a major hand in that. I did good today,’ ” park ranger Josh Bates said. “I hope with sore muscles comes a sense of satisfaction.”
The park program is one of dozens of options available to college students who want to do something more productive than party in the sun during their mid-semester break.
Many universities offer alternative spring break programs, sometimes in other countries such as the Dominican Republic and Jamaica, often accompanied by staff and faculty, and sometimes even for credit if the work is related to the students’ major.
At Kent State, for example, 86 students volunteered for five trips that began as early as Saturday, KSU senior special assistant Anne Gosky said.
Students are helping community agencies on Cleveland’s near west side, volunteering at the country’s largest homeless shelter in Washington, D.C., and building homes with Habitat for Humanity in Western New York.
The university has gotten away from the weeklong trips repairing homes in the hurricane-damaged south, a popular venue for students from around the country for the last several years.
KSU is opting for shorter trips that take as little as three days and that are closer to home. Costs are relatively modest — anywhere from $60 to $250 for food, housing and transportation, so they fit into many students’ budgets.
“We were spending 20 hours on a bus getting to Biloxi, Miss.,” Gosky recalled. “We’d lose a day going and coming back” and that ate up a lot of time.
UA last week offered five trips at $250 each. Students could help with hunger relief in Charlotte, N.C., for instance, or renovate a camp in Winder, Ga.
UA assistant professor Craig Wise struck off on his own, recruiting 25 students in construction technology to help repair homes in Nashville.
Members of the student group Ambassadors for Rebuilding received some college credit for repairing homes damaged by torrential rains and flooding in May 2010.
Wise divided students into four teams that tackled two or three houses each, repairing sub-floors, installing handrails and demolishing and then pouring concrete for a new sidewalk.
Students got a taste of the planning that goes into construction, as well.
Before the trip, the sponsoring organizations Rebuilding Together and Southeast Nashville Recovery provided students with home inspection reports so they could create tool and material lists.
“That’s one of the really beautiful things — watching students appreciate the intricacies of getting the work done on a schedule,” Wise said.
For the Cuyahoga Valley park repairs, the Conservancy for the CVNP and National Park Service recruited students from six Ohio universities. In addition to UA, they were Kent State, Cleveland State, Cuyahoga Community College, John Carroll and Wooster.
Students are tackling six stretches of trails at the side of an established volunteer group, the Cuyahoga Valley Trails Council. The work is not glamorous, but it came with early morning trail hikes, yoga and campfires.
The program aims to grow, as the 33,000-acre park has 105 miles of trail that need repair after the winter season.
It will be able to do so if it finds other enthusiasts like Gerdes and Houze, who interned at the park for the last two summers.
They spent the first part of the week in a UA–sponsored, five-day trip to the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, getting home just in time to take part in the three-day Cuyahoga Valley park project.
“This is something we’re passionate about,” said Gerdes, who will graduate in August with a bachelor’s degree in geography and planning.
At a cost of $55 per student, it is “so cheap,” said Houze, who will earn a bachelor’s in biology. “I can’t believe how cheap it is.”
Carol Biliczky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 330-996-3729.