Alternative spring break options expanded

Even as the cold tightens its grip on Erie, Mercyhurst College students have turned their thoughts to spring break – sand, surf, looking good in a bikini.

But when the Mercyhurst spring break kicks off on Feb. 27, more than 100 Mercyhurst students will be doing something more than working on their tans.

As in years past, students have the opportunity to participate in “alternative” spring break trips, and this year, the college has three choices for students interested in community building rather than partying in the sun.

About 110 students will travel with adviser Daniel Cabanillas to Miami, Fla., to participate in the ever-popular Habitat for Humanity home-building trip. There the group from Mercyhurst will join hundreds of other students for the annual Collegiate Spring Break Challenge organized by the international office of Habitat for Humanity each year.

Another group of eight students will travel with Sister Kathleen Marie Leap on a “border awareness experience” along the border between El Paso, Texas, and Juarez, Mexico. There, students will assist with English tutoring services and learn about border issues while staying with families on both sides of the Mexican/United States border. This trip is organized through the Women’s Intercultural Center, a Mercy ministry. It is the second year Mercyhurst has offered the border awareness experience during spring break.

Meanwhile, 11 students will travel with Sister Michele Marie Schroeck on an “urban challenge” in Camden, N.J., where they will participate in an integrated program of service, education, and reflection at the Romero Center. Students will volunteer in schools, at housing rehabilitation projects, and with food banks while learning about the issues that contribute to these social conditions. The Romero Center is an urban retreat and social justice education center named for the late Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, who was assassinated after protesting for social justice in that South American country. The center is housed at St. Joseph Pro-Cathedral in East Camden, and can accommodate nearly 30 people for its urban retreats. This is the first year Mercyhurst will offer access to this well-established program in New Jersey. (

Mercyhurst College began offering “alternative” spring break options about five years ago, starting with the Habitat for Humanity Collegiate Spring Break Challenge, then adding the border awareness experience last year. The trip to Camden, N.J., is new in 2003.

Advisers all agree that the enthusiasm the alternative trips garner is the one reason the college continues to seek out unique community- and service-oriented spring break alternatives. The other is the obvious tie with the Catholic tradition of the college.

“Alternative spring breaks offer students the chance to integrate service in an intensive way,” explained Sister Michele, who directs the campus’ service learning program and also works to develop alternative springs breaks along with Sister Kathleen. “For many students it is a life-changing and eye-opening experience. For example, the border awareness experience provides an unusual opportunity for our students to experience different cultures and look at issues from an international perspective.”

In the past, Thanksgiving break has also been used as an opportunity for service expeditions. In November 2000, and then again in November 2002, a group of Mercyhurst College students traveled to Honduras to assist with rebuilding efforts in that hurricane- and flood-ravaged country. Both groups spent time in Chamelecon, Honduras, a community of 150,000 that was partly destroyed by Hurricane Mitch. During their stay, the students assisted with construction projects. The college hopes to make the service trip to Honduras a Thanksgiving break tradition after it was put on hiatus in 2001 due to the terrorist attacks on the United States.
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