Stonehill College Students Devote Spring Break to Helping Others
April 24, 2012
by Kenneth J. Souza
While the majority of college students spend their coveted spring breaks enjoying fun in the sun and doing little more than meeting their own selfish needs, nearly 200 students from Stonehill College devoted their vacation to helping make a difference in impoverished or disaster-stricken areas.
It's all part of the school's annual HOPE Alternative Spring Break Program - now in its 15th year - during which students volunteer to do various community service projects here in the U.S. and abroad.
Initiated at Stonehill College in 1997, HOPE - whose acronym represents the four tenets of Honoring our neighbor, Organizing for justice, Practicing peace, and Encountering God - began with visits to a few select sites here in the U.S. that were linked to Holy Cross ministries and eventually expanded to 11 national and international sites this year that were served by 175 student leaders and volunteers.
"Trips like this across the country are growing in popularity," said Joe Miller, Campus Minister for HOPE at Stonehill College. "There are more and more students who are wanting to go and do this sort of thing at least one or two of the years while they are in school."
Explaining that all the destinations chosen are a combination of community service work and learning about whatever social injustice is prevalent in the area, Miller said students are given the opportunity to sign up for the program during an information session in the fall.
"But we've gotten to the point where so many students are interested that I think we're going to have to have several information sessions to accommodate them next year," he said. "There's an application they complete and it asks for the top preferences of where they'd like to go. They also have to complete a short answer essay listing their previous service work activities and why they picked a certain location."
HOPE is not just a week-long trip, either. Students go through a five-month process in which they form community with each other; learn about the culture, history and social justice issues in their receiving communities; have an opportunity to experience this firsthand over spring break; and then continue to pursue justice after their return.
One of the first international HOPE trips was made to assist the people of the St. Rose of Lima Parish in Guaimaca, Honduras - a mission of the Fall River Diocese that Stonehill College students continue to support every year.
"Our students are engaged in all the ministries that the Fall River Diocese helps out with there," Miller said. "Some students worked at the school, others worked at the clinic. I know one student was an EMT and he helped the Sisters during his time there at the clinic, which I know they appreciated very much. The pastor, Father Craig Pregana, also took some of the students with him to visit the outlying villages there."
Stonehill senior Holly Boyle, who made her third HOPE trip last month, was among the group that traveled to Guaimaca this year.
"I assisted with multiple projects, including building a house, helping the staff at the clinic, working at the farm, and painting at the school," she said. "Although we did multiple projects, the most important part of this experience was bonding with the community we served. We definitely made a lot of great friends while we were there."
Boyle, who spent her spring break in the Dominican Republic in 2010 and Peru in 2011, said she was struck by the love and appreciation she experienced from the villagers in Honduras, especially while celebrating Mass each night.
"Every single night we were there, a great portion of the congregation would actually walk up to our group to give us the sign of peace, or ‘la paz,'" she said. "By the end of the week, our entire group turned really Honduran and walked around the church to give others la paz as well."
Of all her experiences with the HOPE program over the last three years, Boyle said the one thing that will stay with her was the experience of helping out at the medical clinic in Honduras this year.
"They only had one nurse practitioner there, and they could use all the help they could get," she said. "They even asked everyone in our group with medical experience to assist at the clinic and actually see patients. They were so short-staffed that we did everything that a doctor would essentially do, and we always reported all of our findings to the nurse practitioner before we did anything to help the patient."
Having just been accepted into medical school, Boyle said she learned valuable life lessons during the trip.
"The experiences I had there reaffirmed that I truly want to be a physician," she said.
Another three-time HOPE participant, Randy Jose, said he first learned about the alternative spring break program after several friends attended during his freshman year.
"A lot of them came back and said how much of a life-changing experience it was for them - how they met a great group of people - and so it struck me as something that I would like to do," he said.
Jose worked to help with the relief effort in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina during his sophomore year, then did community service work in rural West Virginia last year.
This year he took on the role of student leader and led a group of students to work at the Coachella Valley Housing Coalition in California.
"It was actually the best trip I've ever been on," Jose said. "It was a wonderful experience, working to help migrant farm workers build homes and help the community over there."
Noting that on every trip he's been able to meet some amazing and interesting members of the communities he's served, Jose said there was one 13-year-old girl he met this year who made an indelible impression on him.
"Her name is Maria ... and she has really big dreams," he said. "She knows when she graduates from high school she wants to go on to UCLA and either Harvard or Yale to study prenatal care. Seeing the passion within her, considering the conditions she's living in, is just unbelievable."
In addition to Honduras and California, Stonehill students this year also traveled to New Orleans to continue disaster relief work in the Gulf Coast region along with members of Habitat for Humanity; the Sunset Gap Community Center in Cosby, Tenn.; the Mercy Center in the South Bronx, N.Y.; rural West Virginia to assist with housing rehabilitation and environmental issues; the André House, a ministry of the Congregation of the Holy Cross, in Phoenix, Ariz.; the Romero Center in Camden, N.J. to assist with homeless shelters and food banks in the area; La Romana in the Dominican Republic to work at Hogar Del Niño, a center that seeks to offer necessary services to children in need; Nicaragua to help with building homes and interacting with local children; and to Peru, where they worked at Fe y Alegría, a local school, and Yancana Huasay, a rehabilitation center and school that caters primarily to children with mental and physical disabilities.
Noting that this year they had an impressive 290 students apply for 175 slots, Miller said they will have to find ways to better accommodate everyone over the course of their four years at Stonehill.
"Interest has grown so much that ... in future years students may be limited to one or two years unless they take a leadership role in the program," he said.
And based on the response of recent HOPE spring break trip attendees, Miller is likely to see interest in the program continue to grow.
"I've come to realize that no matter how much I do for the communities I serve, I always come back with so much more than I could ever give," Boyle said.
"I heard some students coming back from spring break after going to Cancun or Hawaii and saying what a great time they had, but for me personally there's no greater feeling than spending some time to go help out and serve other members of your community," Jose agreed. "I don't regret it at all, I would go back every year and do it again if I could."
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