Twenty-eight Ball State students spent spring break in West Virginia, where they volunteered for two nonprofits, Mon County Habitat for Humanity and The Shack Neighborhood House.

Cancun or Daytona Beach weren’t the ideal spring break destinations for Ani Thomas. She was much happier volunteering in Morgantown, West Virginia.

The Ball State nursing major joined 27 other students for a weeklong alternative break. The group volunteered for two nonprofits, Mon County Habitat for Humanity and The Shack Neighborhood House. Habitat builds homes for low-income families, who assist in the construction and pay for the house through no-interest loans. The Shack is a community center providing free and low-cost programs for families and children.

“I love it so much that it’s not really a choice for me,” says Thomas, ‘16, who is president of the Alternative Breaks Association at Ball State. “It’s way more rewarding for me to go on alternative breaks as opposed to going to Florida or on cruises.” (Granted, she’s from Tampa, Florida, and she can go to the beach anytime.)

Student Voluntary Services (SVS) introduced alternative breaks in 2004 as a way for students to meet people and grow while helping others. This is the first year an alternative break worked on multiple projects, says Rebecca Sievers, a graduate assistant who coordinated the trip.

Students assist families

At Habitat, the students participated in the annual Collegiate Challenge, which Habitat International holds each year. College students from around the U.S. rotate in and out of volunteer stints through March.

Ball State began construction on a three-home project for Habitat, says Kristen Manzo, volunteer coordinator for Mon County Habitat.

“They’re our first Collegiate Challenge group in the spring, so we’re excited to kick it all off and see how far we can get,” Manzo says.

At The Shack, the students handled odd jobs around the agency, working on facilities or playing with children in the organization’s activity groups, Sievers says.

Social causes, passion drive volunteerism

The alternative breaks program wants to expand to five projects next year.

Students and SVS staff members typically identify social causes they’d like to be involved with, such as helping the homeless or caring for animals. They then look for nonprofits needing help.

Thomas, who went on her first alternative break her freshman year, said she keeps returning because she gets to see the positive effect she’s had on others’ lives. Her favorite, to date, was a trip to West Virginia, where she and her classmates repaired a family’s badly deteriorated house.

“We got so close to them. They were so welcoming to us,” she says. “They were like family.”

Students want more opportunities

The alternative breaks program is looking at ambitious growth over the next year, Sievers said.

Not only did the group double its workload this spring break, the organization is already talking about doing five total trips for next academic year—two in the fall and three in the spring.

“We are a really passionate organization, and we’re about encouraging people to volunteer,” Thomas says. “It’s a constant part of our lives. The biggest reward that we get out of this is helping people. We hope people will recognize us and recognize what we do and just want to be a part of this.”