Heading south for winter break

Service learning project sends HCC students to Miss. to help Katrina victims rebuild

In the region

January 10, 2007|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,sun reporter

While other students are relaxing during Howard Community College's winter break, 19-year-old Amber Gillette of Laurel is planning to do hard labor, knocking down walls and tearing up floors for free.

"I'm looking forward to that," she said.

Gillette is one of 10 HCC students who have decided to spend their break rehabilitating houses in Mississippi to help people who were affected by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The group leaves tomorrow under the guidance of Carol Parreco, coordinator of service learning for the college. They will collaborate with local agencies on building and cleaning projects in Kiln, Miss., for about five days.

The trip is HCC's first "alternative winter break" after similar efforts over the past two spring breaks. The first spring break group worked on a community center in rural West Virginia, and the second worked in New Orleans and McLain, Miss., after Katrina.

For the winter trip, students are paying about $150 toward their travel expenses. The Ascend One Corp., which provides debt-management services, and the Baltimore Community Foundation contributed a combined $1,750 for the students' room and board.

The number of community colleges with service learning programs has doubled from 30 percent of the nation's 1,200 two-year schools in 1994 to 60 percent in 2003, said Gail Robinson, manager of service learning for the American Association of Community Colleges. That number surpasses the roughly 40 percent of universities that have such programs.

While four-year schools tend to have larger programs for service-oriented breaks, more community colleges are adding a travel component.

"It's really a way of tying education to the real world and expanding student horizons," said Stephen Horvath, HCC's associate vice president of academic affairs. "It's a chance to have an impact on more students and get a higher level of involvement."

This is the third year HCC has had a staffed service learning department, after a foundation grant enabled several local community colleges to get such programs running.

Replacing a faculty-led effort, Parreco helps teachers integrate volunteer activities into their curricula and connects students with service opportunities.

She said she has always enjoyed working on service projects in the field. After having seen alternative break trips at other colleges, she said, "I definitely can find 10 students who want to do this."

Horvath was skeptical. "Good luck," he told her.

But nine students agreed make the trip to West Virginia in the spring of 2005. Then, after Hurricane Katrina, interest in helping the victims was running high, Parreco said.

In an effort to expand the program and give students more options, Parreco decided to add a winter break trip this year.

Last week she was double-checking the plane tickets and sharing her final packing tips with the students, encouraging them to bring a sleeping bag, insect repellent and boots.

She also gave them a painting and drywall manual, which some looked at skeptically.

On past trips, Parreco said, it has not taken long for the students to get excited about the work, even if they have no experience in construction.

"Once they get working and they accomplish things, the magic of people saying thank you and being grateful makes them want to keep working," she said.

Shana Gardner, 21, of Arnold took the spring break trip to New Orleans and Mississippi last year and will go again this week.

"I was impressed with how powerful the experience was," Gardner said. "We get to devote the whole week to bettering someone's life. You don't get to do that too often."

Gillette said she was motivated to join the winter break trip because she has never been to the South.

"My life wasn't really affected by Katrina," she said. "I guess I just want to have a connection."

In contrast, Travis Anthony, 19, of Columbia was born in Biloxi, Miss., and has family along the Gulf Coast.

"I really wanted to go down there, and this seemed like a good opportunity," he said.

Parreco believes the effects can be even more lasting.

"Once they come back to their community, they see it differently," she said. "They see what shapes their community and what they can do within their own community."

sandy.alexander@baltsun.com

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