Miguel Martinez will always remember what a woman told him while he was putting energy-efficient lightbulbs in her New Orleans home Monday.
“She had lost most of her belongings and family in Hurricane Katrina,” he said. “When she came back eight months later, she said the city of New Orleans looked like the end of the world.”
It was an eye-opener for Martinez, a junior sociology/criminology and Spanish major at Winthrop University.
“That just made me realize that we do take what we have for granted,” he said. “You don’t realize what you have until you don’t have it anymore. ... I wish everyone could experience what I’ve experienced here.”
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Martinez is one of more than 30 Winthrop students who devoted their spring break to giving back to others through the Center for Career and Civic Engagement’s Alternative Spring Break.
This year, students had three options: urban renewal and cleanup in New Orleans; helping the needy in Pennsylvania through the Pittsburgh Project; and addressing poverty and hunger in St. Augustine, Fla., with the St. Francis House.
Martinez said he had participated in Alternative Spring Break last year. Once he saw the impact he and other students could have, he was hooked on community service.
In New Orleans, he helped replace regular lightbulbs with more than 500 energy-efficient lightbulbs in homes across the city.
The next day, he worked at the New Orleans Mission, moving bunk beds for the homeless indoors and adding pillows, blankets and sheets.
“By the end of the day, we’d created housing for 180 homeless men,” he said. “Tonight, when the homeless arrive, they’ll have housing inside instead of outside.”
Though they are helping others, they’re also learning about themselves and expanding their horizons, said Winthrop sophomore Rachael Lawniczak.
“You’re exposed to more than what you are if you just stayed at home,” said the early childhood education major. “It’s a different experience. It gets me outside of my comfort zone and helps me grow as a person.”
Like Martinez, Lawniczak had done community service in the past, working with the Cherokee Indians in Maryville, Tenn., last year.
This year, she’s in Pennsylvania helping through the Pittsburgh Project, doing repairs on homes. One woman’s husband had died, so they’ve spackled, repaired a wall and put up new drywall in her home.
“I enjoy helping people, and this was a great opportunity to get out and help people outside of my own community and get to know other people,” she said.
As a student leader on the trip, she said just seeing everyone come together for a common goal has been amazing.
In addition to giving back to the community, learning new skills and meeting new people, she said there’s so much appreciation.
“I was talking to group Wednesday morning, and they said even in the few days we’ve learned to appreciate simple things like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and a hot shower.”
Junior special education major Alexis Clowney said what amazes her is the people with whom they’re working on the service projects.
“We only come and lend a hand for a week,” she said. “It’s the people who are there every day, who do it selflessly, those are the people that touch me. I try to figure out, how are they doing these things when we’re not around, when it’s only two of them?”
Clowney is in St. Augustine, Fla., working with the St. Francis House. A typical day begins at 8 a.m. and includes preparing and serving food to the homeless. They also put together boxes of food for people to take with them and clean up around the food pantry.
St. Francis typically has volunteers who help throughout the week, but never as many as those who have come for Alternative Spring Break.
“They’ve said it’s really been a blessing because it’s helped them get ahead and have stocks so they can serve the people in a more timely and effective manner,” she said.
Clowney has participated in Alternative Spring Break multiple times in the past several years, saying a desire to serve a greater purpose called her to it.
“As college students, we all have different goals on our spring break,” she said. “If you don’t have any, I’d say one goal should be try Alternative Spring Break. You won’t leave the same. It’s a wonderful time to get to do something that’s so much bigger than yourself.”