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Making a clean break
Students forsake sunshine and partying to volunteer during 'alternative' vacations

Jane Lyons' spring "break" from her college studies so far has consisted of renovating a West Side apartment, serving meals to the homeless and cleaning up yards and street corners.

"It's tiring," the Buffalo State College junior said Sunday afternoon while wrapping up a volunteer cleanup effort on Tonawanda Street, near Riverside Park. "My arms are ready to fall off from the huge amount of raking."

But Lyons was hardly complaining.

"I get a lot of enjoyment out of it," she said.

Forsaking booze and beaches -- two common ingredients in a stereotypical spring break experience -- Lyons was among 13 undergraduates participating in a local "alternative spring break" that began Friday and concludes today.

As a light rain fell, Lyons admitted to being "a little jealous" she was missing out on the sunshine and warm temperatures that would've accompanied a trip South.

Nonetheless, the new friendships she formed here more than outweighed the promise of better weather elsewhere, she said.

Besides, she added, "I'm not a huge drinker or partier."

Jeffrey Mulvin, a freshman psychology major, expressed a similar sentiment.

"I've never been much of a partier," he said. "When I saw this come up, I thought it was perfect."

The students paid $50 each for the privilege of sleeping on the floor of a United Methodist Church and participating in three days of hard volunteer labor on behalf of the community.

On Saturday, they helped renovate a Herkimer Street apartment; in the evening, they prepared and served a fish dinner, with rice and salad, for clients of Friends of the Night People kitchen on Hudson Avenue.

Sunday morning and afternoon, they collected at least 30 bags of debris from along the Riverside bike path and the Riverwalk and several blocks on Tonawanda Street, between Ontario Street and Esser Avenue.

"I want to make a difference. You know, why not give some of your time, be less selfish?" said Summer Hayden, a junior from Springville who is studying elementary education. "I go to school here. Why not? My kids and I walk down these streets."

The student effort was organized through the college's Volunteer and Service Learning Center, which teamed up with several local non-profit organizations to set up the service projects.

Alternative spring breaks emphasizing volunteer service are growing in popularity nationwide. Laura Hill Rao, Volunteer and Service Learning Coordinator, expects the program at Buffalo State will be more than a one-shot deal.

"Even in the six years I've been here, I've seen student interest grow in being involved in their community," said Rao.

Canisius College offers an alternative spring break program, as well, with students typically traveling out of the area for their service projects.

Last year, 54 Canisius students traveled to Appalachian sites in Kentucky and West Virginia. Students this year will head to farms in Lanceburg, Ky., and Spencer, W.Va., as well as other sites when spring break begins next Monday.

Projects completed by the Buffalo State students were far closer to campus -- although just as needed, the students said.

"Part of it is really understanding the problems that do affect us," said Sametra Polkah-Toe, a junior.

The area's drug problem, for example, hit home for Polkah-Toe when she discovered dozens of drug-related items during cleanup on the Riverwalk and bike path -- areas that are supposed to be family-oriented.

"You can learn anything in a book, but to actually do it, that's what's going to stick out," she said.

e-mail: jtokasz@buffnews.com

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