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SOU organizes 'Alternative Spring Break'

For most college students, spring break is a welcome reprieve after pulling back-to-back all-nighters studying during finals week.

For others, it's time to pick up a shovel, throw on a pair of overalls and do some good old-fashioned community service.

Brittany Depew wants students to be part of the latter group. As environmental and community engagement coordinator for Southern Oregon University's Civic Engagement Program, Depew organizes the program's annual Alternative Spring Break, which pairs groups of SOU students with service organizations from Gold Beach to Guatemala during the week of spring break.

"It's really cool to see most of the students are drawn in because ... they want to experience something new, something that they personally don't have to deal with," Depew said.

This year, the Civic Engagement Program has organized three different trips, one involving environmental and marine stewardship on the Oregon Coast in Gold Beach, another working with animal rescue and rehabilitation in Sacramento, Calif., and another learning firsthand about the impacts of fair-trade products in Guatemala.

Depew said each group does its own organizing and fundraising, and for the most part works independently from each other.

The programs on the Oregon Coast and in Sacramento cost $200 and $250 per person, respectively. The Guatemala trip costs $1,800 a head.

Depew has nearly 30 students signed up for the program. They will spend the next two and a half months fundraising for the trips. Several fundraisers are planned in the coming weeks both on and off campus, including one to benefit the Guatemala group at Yogurt Hut in Ashland and a concert to benefit the program on Jan. 29 at Grace Lutheran Church.

Student coordinator Megan Ziemer participated in the program last year, volunteering at food banks, homeless shelters and community gardens in Tacoma, Wash.

"We went to the food banks, and then we went to some of the homeless shelters there and just helped out," said Ziemer, a sophomore. "We bagged frozen corn for three hours. We just did whatever they needed us to do."

"We followed the food from the farms where the food is grown to the food banks where it is distributed," said Parker Mills, another SOU sophomore who went on the Tacoma trip. "We were free labor for the nonprofit organizations."

Ziemer said a large part of the program involved personal growth and exposure to other ways of life.

"It allows (people) to branch out and grow. It allows them to step out of their box and realize the world is bigger than themselves," said Ziemer. "Volunteering makes you happy because you know you've made a person's day better by handing them a plate of food."

While Mills also was interested in volunteering, he admitted his main motive for going on the Tacoma trip was because he was bored and had never been there before.

"All my breaks from school, I was just sitting at home doing nothing, and I figured somebody could use my time better," he said. "I didn't have anything to do for spring break, and I'd never been to Tacoma before, and I figured 'Hey, why not?' "

"On a number of different levels, students come together and work with others that they wouldn't have worked with otherwise," said Depew, adding that many program alumni organize their own volunteer projects once they come back.

"A big part of it is having that exposure, being exposed to different cultures, different things. A big thing is when they come back and say, 'I can't believe I didn't know that there's this community 200 miles away and this is how they live.' "

For more information, or to register for the program, visit www.sou.edu/su/ce/springbreak, or contact Brittany Depew at depewb@sou.edu or 541-552-6454.

Reach reporting intern Nils Holst at 541-776-4368 or email holstn@sou.edu.