Students, faculty members give up vacation to volunteer

Ten students and faculty members from Western Carolina University traveled to Johns Island, S.C., during the university’s fall break to volunteer with Habitat for Humanity.

The four-day trip was part of an alternative break program, which provides an opportunity for students and faculty members to spend their fall and spring break time participating in meaningful service through helping communities and individuals, said Glenn Bowen, director of service learning at Western.

Since the program began at WCU more than two years ago, students have participated in alternative spring break trips locally and overseas. In 2005, students assisted with a hurricane relief project in Pensacola, Fla.; in 2006, students helped with Hurricane Katrina rehabilitation projects on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and repaired schools and conducted health screenings in Panama for a service-learning project called “Project Panama”; and in 2007, students participated in various social service projects in Philadelphia. The recent trip to Johns Island was the first fall break project.

“Alternative break trips offer such a unique experience – the opportunity to serve a community in need and build character, all while having a really great time,” said Charli Lehman, program coordinator with the Center for Service Learning. “Students have always enjoyed the alternative spring break trips, so creating a fall trip only made sense.”

While on Johns Island, students and faculty paired with Sea Island Habitat for Humanity, a nonprofit organization and ministry dedicated to providing housing for low-income families. The third oldest affiliate of Habitat for Humanity International, Sea Island Habitat for Humanity has built more than 220 homes over a 29-year period.

The 10 students and faculty members helped to frame, roof and paint four houses, in addition to interacting with the homes’ future residents.

“Engaging our students in a Habitat project allows them to work hand-in-hand with the family for whom a house is being built,” said Melanie Clark, assistant director of service learning. “Through conversations and activities, students will be challenged to think critically about this service experience as it relates to diversity, economic and social issues, and their own preconceived notions. The anticipated outcome is that students will be more informed and capable of addressing social, political and economic issues.”

Ramona Dowdell, a junior social work major who was a student leader and organizer for the trip, said making the decision to go on the alternative fall break required little thought. “I do a lot of community service, and I like the feeling of giving back,” said Dowdell. “It was a ‘I’m definitely going to do this’ type of thing, and meetings for the 2008 spring break trip are already in the works.”

For more information about alternative break programs, contact the Center for Service Learning at (828) 227-7184 or e-mail Clark at