Students Donate Spring Break Time to Help Others

Think of spring break, and you picture college students painting houses with Habitat for Humanity or planting trees at sites ravaged by mountaintop removal.

No? Then maybe you need to rethink your stereotypes.

Almost as soon as classes ended on Friday, March 8, for Radford University's 2013 spring break, groups of RU students were on their way to lend a hand across the region.

Accompanied by Tim Filbert, assistant director of the Office of Community Engagement, one group traveled to Roanoke, where students spent Saturday, March 9, working with a soon-to-be Habitat for Humanity homeowner on restoration projects, helping to clean and paint the house.

"That was a great experience, and it was even better because the person who will be receiving that house was actually there working alongside us. That made it a little bit more special," said senior psychology major Kayten Stroop, student leader for the trip.

Community Engagement sponsored the trip and worked with the intermediary organization Southeast Rural Community Assistance Project to establish the work location in Roanoke.

Later on Saturday, the students and Filbert volunteered for yard and cleanup work at the home of an elderly couple who attend Ebenezer Baptist Church in Roanoke. The church, along with Kingstown Civic League, hosted the RU group over the course of their two-day visit. Ebenezer Baptist members provided Filbert and the students with food and allowed them to sleep on the church pews.

On Sunday, the RU team attended service at Ebenezer Baptist and then helped clean up around a Roanoke home damaged by fire in November.

"I think this trip was important because it exposed these students to people who have had some difficult situations," Filbert said. "Experiences like this will shape the students' lives in big and small ways."

When not working, the group interacted with church members and learned about Roanoke's African-American history and community issues, Filbert noted. "This experience was powerful for the group as they entered a community, a neighborhood, and saw lives very different than their own."

Student Morgan Cassell said she volunteered for the service trip because she wanted to do more with her spring break than simply relax. "I wanted to help a community and make a lasting impression," she said. "What better way to spend your break than knowing you have impacted someone's life in such a positive way?"

RU students volunteer at a Habitat for Humanity project in Roanoke.

RU students volunteer at a Habitat for Humanity project in Roanoke.

Also impacting lives but in a less immediate way were professors Theresa Burriss and Rick Roth, who led a group of 10 RU students on a reforestation planting project at a former mountaintop removal site in eastern Kentucky.

The alternative spring break activity was in support of the Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative and Green Forests Work. The Roanoke and eastern Kentucky service trips were supported by RU's Scholar-Citizen Initiative, which promotes a teaching and learning culture that fosters a sense of how individuals can best contribute to the world.

While on the Kentucky trip, participating students and faculty braved harsh weather conditions to plant American chestnut trees, among other hardwoods, on abandoned mine sites.

"At first, I couldn't see how planting a few hundred trees could actually make any amount of a difference. However, once I was able to see the destruction firsthand, I gained a much greater understanding of the impacts and effects," said Taylor LaPrade, a sophomore majoring in social science and minoring in Appalachian studies. "I then realized that it wasn't about the number of trees that I myself planted but about the efforts of all of the Radford University students and students from other schools combined that would truly make a difference."

Junior Justin Blankenship said the trip was important to him "because I am from the Appalachian Mountains, and I have seen firsthand how destructive mountaintop removal can be."

Blankenship, vice president of RU's Student Government Association, called the trip "one of the most rewarding experiences I have ever had."

Planting trees on a mountain was exhausting work, said Chris Wilson, a senior religious studies major, but "so rewarding to see the side of a mountain covered in little tree seedlings that one day will grow into a forest," he said. "It was also very humbling to know we spent seven hours working hard and achieved so little when you consider the scope of how many other areas need work done."

Student volunteer Victoria Curtis said the trip was exactly the service project she had been looking for.

"I have been trying to find something to be a part of and a way to give back to Appalachia in particular," Curtis said. "This trip provided a perfect opportunity for me to be a part of something so much bigger than myself, a way to give back to the community, do a little manual labor and get to know more about the wonderful world of Appalachia and meet some students who have the same dreams and want the same things out of life that I do."

As faculty and students were planting trees in Kentucky, Professor Mark Wagstaff of the Department of Recreation, Parks and Tourism (RCPT) was leading a group of Japanese outdoor educators in a spring break training course near campus at RU's Selu Conservancy and the Jefferson and George Washington national forests.

The purpose of the course, which ran March 6-17, was to prepare Japanese outdoor educators to teach and certify Japanese students through the Wilderness Education Association (WEA). Five RU RCPT majors and seven Japanese students participated.

On completion of the course, Japanese educators became WEA members with access to the International Registry of Outdoor Leaders, an online portfolio to assess skills and award outdoor leader certification.

Wagstaff said the training was "a unique cultural immersion experience for all involved." The curriculum included outdoor living skills, planning and logistics, risk management, leadership, environmental integration and education.

The Japanese team planned to return home with a vision to create a new professional organization focused on "professionalizing outdoor leadership in Japan," Wagstaff said. "The RU RCPT department is playing a major role in bringing this vision to reality."

See photos of the project on Facebook.

RU Public Relations Writer Bonnie Erickson contributed to this report.

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Mar 19, 2013
Chad Osborne
(540) 831-7761