It may still feel like winter, but spring break is right around the corner at Mercyhurst.
While some students opt to travel home during the week of March 10 or take a much-needed vacation, several dozen Lakers are dispersing across the country to pay it forward through alternative spring break trips. One student-volunteer is even heading overseas for her break.
“At Mercyhurst, we talk about ‘Getting the Experience’ in the classroom, but even during breaks, we offer these volunteer opportunities to students so they can gain a different real-world experience,” said Colin Hurley, director of service learning at Mercyhurst.
Headlining this year’s group of trips is a new opportunity for six students who are driving to Cleveland, Ohio; Chicago, Ill.; and Detroit, Mich. Chaperoned by Bethany Brun, service learning administrator, and Rhina Duquela, assistant director of residence life, the group’s name Just Mercy appropriately represents its mission to experience social justice issues in urban settings.
Just Mercy members will spend half of their day volunteering with local churches, MedWish, a Chicago YMCA and Capuchin Ministries, while the other half of the trip is reserved for exploration of each city’s culture and local cuisine. Members of this group will sleep in churches and hostels during the five-day road trip.
“A trip like this not only gets students out of their environment — they get students out of their comfort zones, while challenging them to get to know different people and look beyond themselves,” said Brun. “Mercyhurst does a great job of providing Lakers an opportunity to live out the university’s mission. Service trips offer them that opportunity to get out, to serve and to widen their visions.”
For volunteers who like to get their hands dirty — turns out, there are quite a few — two groups totaling 45 volunteers are heading south for spring break to work for Habitat for Humanity. Greg Baker, director of Campus Ministry, and Steven Weber, system administrator, are leading the trips to Sumter, S.C., and Athens, Ala. Habitat organizations in each city arrange room and board for volunteers, as well as transportation to and from the building sites.
Seniors Kathryn Adams and Lisa Sirois are both members of the university’s Habitat Club, and they have spent several hours helping to erect homes for families in need.
“I love that I’m able to help others through something as simple as completing construction projects,” said Adams, who added that through her freshman Habitat experience in New Mexico, she was able to discover herself. “One of the best moments is getting to meet the family whose house you’re building. They are always incredibly grateful; that always touches me so much.”
Through Habitat, volunteers work from start to finish, from laying foundations to putting up framework and dry wall to painting and adding the finishing touches.
For Sirois, community service is something she plans to pursue post-graduation. “I really enjoy the tangible aspect of the service,” she said. “With Habitat, for example, you don’t have to know how to do anything. From day one, volunteers teach you how to do different projects, and then before you know it, you’re building a house. It’s very hands-on.”
The fourth trip, sponsored by Church of the Cross in Erie, will be welcoming Hurley, Mercyhurst student Kaitlin Harnden and Mercyhurst graduate program alumnus Olivier Dupiton, who is a native of Haiti, to reconnect with service and relationship-building work in the community of Gressier, Haiti.
“It’s been four years since the major earthquake hit Haiti, and there is great progress yet much still to come,” said Hurley who has journeyed to the country several times as a volunteer.
Hurley is exploring options to unite Mercyhurst with trusted partners to create opportunities for more students to travel abroad for service. A January term 2015 Public Health class with Thomas Cook, Ph.D., for instance, will partner with the Mercy organization Focus on Haiti in the Gros Morne region.
“Service learning is essentially about embedding hands-on service efforts with mutual benefits for student and community within a learning setting. This marriage often takes place through a project, a paper or discussions,” said Hurley. “It’s equally important for the student relationships in this nontraditional type of classroom to work as a team and appreciate its diversity. The student transformation post-experience is incredible.”
PHOTO: Mercyhurst student Kaitlin Harnden during last year’s trip to Haiti.