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'Alternative' spring breaks Some area students want a different kind of action -- helping poor and homeless

Spring break has arrived for thousands of local college students, packing up and heading south for a good time.

Swimsuit. Check.

Suntan lotion. Check.

Hammer and nails. Huh?

Chugging beer next to the pool in Florida or sunbathing on a beach in Mexico still may be spring-break tradition, but using the mid-semester time off to help the poor and homeless isn't so unusual either.

Canisius College students are leaving Sunday to lend a hand in impoverished Appalachia.

Students at Hilbert College left Friday for a five-day service trip to rural South Carolina.

And last year's hurricane devastation may have motivated more college students to head to the Gulf Coast. Ten percent of St. Bonaventure's student body has been cleaning up in the Gulf this week during the school's break.

"We're gutting houses, cleaning up mold, cutting down trees in the way," St. Bonaventure freshman Ayshia Welsh said by cell phone. "We're basically doing a deep cleaning of the town."

That experience is still far from the norm, and each year there's concern the traditional fun-and-sun spring break excursions are getting out of control.

Eighty-three percent of young women polled agreed spring break trips involved binge-drinking, while nearly three-quarters of them said it results in increased sexual activity, an American Medical Association survey released this week showed.

But as many as 33,000 college students from across the nation are believed to be taking part in community service trips during spring break, estimates the Florida-based nonprofit Break Away, which helps campuses organize trips.

These students -- from colleges big and small, public and private -- grab their work gloves and head to rural towns, urban neighborhoods and overseas locations.

Nearly 300 St. Bonaventure students, faculty and alumni fanned out this week to five locations along the Gulf Coast. Small groups from Alfred State College, Daemen College and the University at Buffalo's School of Social Work also will spend next week immersed in the cleanup effort in the coastal region.

"It's beyond words how bad it is down here," said James Mahar, a finance professor, who helped organize the St. Bonaventure trip. "You can't believe what you see -- and what you don't see. There's nothing."

Welsh, from Elma, is in Biloxi, Miss., where she has been sleeping in a tent behind a church. She and her group work through the morning, break for lunch, and then continue their cleanup until early evening. She grabs dinner and a quick rinse off in outdoor showers before calling it a day.

>Help from MTV

"Rather than just doing something for myself, I thought I'd do something to help other people," Welsh said.

These "alternative" breaks started about 15 years ago, when some students grew tired of the excessive and risky behavior at spring break trips, said Jill Piacitelli, executive director of Break Away.

The Katrina-ravaged Gulf contributed to more students volunteering this year, she said. MTV also helped draw attention to the alternative spring-break movement, by hooking up with the United Way to send students to help in the Gulf.

At Canisius College, about 70 students and staff will help the poor and elderly at six locations in West Virginia, Kentucky and South Carolina, a spring-break trip the school has offered for 15 years, said Joe Van Volkenburg, a campus minister at Canisius.

"We have found word spreads among our students," Van Volkenburg said. "If students come away with a good experience, they tell their friends and participation begins to grow."

The Canisius students will help build or paint homes, or maybe tutor kids. The experience will cost them $285 to help pay for their food, lodging and transportation.

>It's "eye-opening"

"A lot of people think you're nuts," said John Loeser, a Canisius junior, who will be making his third trip. "But if you go on this trip with an open mind, and an open heart, you're transformed. It's an eye-opening experience, especially for the student who doesn't get beyond the campus here in Buffalo."

A dozen students from Hilbert College in Hamburg embarked Friday on the school's most extensive alternative spring break. They will work through a Catholic outreach center to help with home repairs and after-school programs in a small, poor town in South Carolina.

"It was time to take Hilbert's volunteer efforts beyond the limits of Western New York," said Sister Jacqueline Benbenek, Hilbert's director of campus ministry.

Welsh, the freshman from St. Bonaventure, admits a more relaxing spring break in a warmer climate was an enticing thought after a long semester.

But now that she's in Biloxi, she doesn't want to leave.

"Honestly, if I hadn't already paid for this semester I would have stayed," Welsh said. "There's so much to do."

e-mail: jrey@buffnews.com