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SOU students offer help on spring break

Spring break, traditionally the time when college students flock to beaches and beer, is drawing Southern Oregon University students to a week in a "food desert" called ... Oakland?

That's right, Oakland, Calif., where they'll find — and work to fix — "environmental racism."

The Alternative Spring Break program is offering 40 students a resume-building opportunity to escape their secure "Oregon bubble" and gain insights into how less-fortunate people live — and possibly use their new understanding to shape studies and careers, participants say.

"The flatlands of Oakland is a food desert. There's a lot of poverty and need for fresh food," says student Zach Woods, a Portland native.

"I've lived in Oregon all my life and wanted to go to a place that's not like Portland. I have an extremely limited world view and want my eyes opened about what's going on around me."

Woods and other students will work in community gardens, survey residents about where they get food and visit elementary schools — to help educate the next generation about good eating.

Three other student teams — in groups of 10 to 15 students each — will travel to other destinations. One team will work with homeless people and study food needs in Tacoma, Wash. Another will build homes with migrant workers in Visalia, Calif. The third will work with orphans in the Dominican Republic, which is by far the most popular destination for alternative spring breakers. Just 13 of 34 applicants get to make that trip.

One of them, junior Sammie Grafton of Newberg, says: "I'm super-stoked. I really like doing community service, giving back to people and getting out of the bubble college students live in. It's rejuvenating and a new experience, where you learn a lot about yourself and others."

Grafton, a history major who worked with homeless people in Portland during last year's spring break program, says, "It's affected a lot of things in my life. It's valuable to my education to see how other people live and work."

The Alternate Spring Break program costs each student $250 for U.S. destinations. Cost of the Dominican Republic trip is $1,900.

The program holds fundraisers, such as bake sales, to raise money and provide scholarships for needier students, says its organizer, SOU Civic Engagement Coordinator Julie French.

"It's a great opportunity for students to make a positive difference on spring break with hands-on service, education and reflection," she says.

"Its significance for students is in seeing what's happening on the ground and in the streets out there in the real world, having new experiences with classmates, working together as a group and getting outside the comfort zone of Oregon," says French, who served on last year's Portland homeless trip.

"We served food in a soup kitchen and learned to make them feel like valued people," says French, an AmeriCorps worker. "I realized my ideas about the homeless were totally wrong. It was an eye-opening experience that took away my fear and helped me realize all people are just like me."

Also on the Portland homeless project last spring — and headed to Oakland this year — was senior James Dills of Eugene. "I like to engage in the world around me, serve others and become aware of issues," Dills reflects. "In talking to people, you realize a lot of them are one paycheck away from being homeless."

Headed to the Visalia home-building project, John Thompson of Medford notes the resume-building potential of the experience, as well as the "astounding" impact of his earlier service in post-Katrina New Orleans.

Freshman Tonada Koch of Bainbridge, Wash., says she grew up in wealthy surroundings and appreciates the "reality check" of learning about poverty and the differences between socioeconomic classes.

Staff member Maia Halverson, who is going on the Oakland trip, says the team will learn about the impoverishment and toxicity of inner-city land, where people do not have ready access to healthful foods and often must buy their food from convenience stores.

Her work last spring with Portland's homeless, Halverson says, "was life-changing ... shocking, confronting something so different. A lot of the students discovered things about themselves they didn't know, like how they looked down on the homeless.

"It's wonderful, what the students are doing," Halverson adds. "It shows a real awareness of the world."

For information or to make a donation, call French at 541-552-6454 or e-mail frenchju@sou.edu. On the Web, see www.sou.edu/su/ce/springbreak.html.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

Southern Oregon University history junior Sammie Grafton of Newberg will be traveling to the Dominican Republic for the Alternative Spring Break program. - Julia Moore