USD students go AWOL for spring break, lend a helping hand

VERMILLION, S.D. -- Rather than tanning on the beaches of the tropics or skiing the slopes of the mountains during spring break, 19 students from The University of South Dakota spent their spring break lending a helping hand to areas devastated by disaster or poverty and learning about critical issues facing those communities.

Through the Center for Academic Engagement (CAE)’s Alternative Week of Off-campus Learning (AWOL) – an alternative spring break program at USD, students immersed themselves in learning and service opportunities in Greensburg, Kan., Biloxi, Miss., and Washington, D.C. 

Six students volunteered in Greensburg, a city decimated by a tornado last May, and contributed to the ongoing recovery effort by cleaning up debris, sheet rocking, salvaging the remnants of a house, and fixing up a house for volunteers. The community, which is located in southwest Kansas, has adopted the theme of “rebuilding green.” USD students saw examples of this commitment when walking through a home using formed concrete walls and the Greensburg Art Center, which is also the first Leadership in Energy and Engineering Design platinum building in the state. 

"I’m impressed with how far the city has come in such a short period of time," said Eric Sandhurst, biology major from Sioux Falls. "I can only hope that Greensburg stays true to its word and becomes an environmentally friendly community as it continues to rebuild."

In addition to Sandhurst, other students volunteering in Greensburg were Jessie Atkinson of Sioux City, Iowa, Carrie Brooks of Yankton, S.D., Erika Hoxeng of Yankton, S.D., Katie Wilkins of Miller, S.D., and Stephanie Zornes of Avoca, Iowa. The trip facilitator through the CAE was Brian Moehnke, AmeriCorps' Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA). A photo of Atkinson working on a home in Greensburg is available for download at www.usd.edu/urelations/images/USD_students_Greensburg.tif.

Although it’s been more than two years since Hurricane Katrina devastated portions of Louisiana and Mississippi, cleanup continues in communities such as Biloxi where five USD students worked with multiple organizations that focused on rebuilding the community.

"This was an eye-opening trip," admitted Danielle Hollmann, a sophomore social work major from Estelline, S.D. "It helped me to be more accepting and less judgmental toward others."

Along with Hollmann, students Donielle Gustafson of Pierre, S.D., Lindsay Ambur of Fort Pierre, S.D., Kaci Nickerson of Cambridge, Neb., and Jason Von Eschen of Wagner, S.D., provided services like cleaning up a park and de-molding a house. They also spent time talking to Katrina survivors, helping young students with homework and reading to a group of first graders. The students were accompanied by Tasha Reiser, an instructor at The U, and AmeriCorps VISTA Courtny Nesheim. A photograph of the USD students preparing to de-mold a house in Biloxi can be downloaded at www.usd.edu/urelations/images/USD_students_Biloxi.tif.

Eight students from USD worked with 11 different agencies and had the opportunity to visit with many national organizations working to alleviate poverty and homelessness during their spring break trip to Washington D.C.

At the Children’s Playtime Project, a local organization, the group organized more than one hundred bags of playtime items for children living in homeless shelters. Students visited with homeless residents at the Community for Creative Non-Violence, the nation’s largest homeless shelter. Additionally, the group met with members of local and national organizations, including the National Alliance to End Homelessness, the National Coalition for the Homeless, and Learn and Serve America, an organization that provides funding for service-learning in higher education. 

"One of the things I enjoyed most was hearing from individuals on how they became homeless, they gave me a totally new perspective," stated Brittany Neiles, a junior history and English education major from Sioux Falls, S.D. "I learned so much on this trip—about the issues and about myself."

Neiles, Abbey Jones of Watertown, S.D.; Colin Lambert, Morgan Peck, Eden Zeleke, Kedest Kadir and Joe Patterson of Sioux Falls, S.D.; and student site leader Sara Larsen of Redfield, S.D., also toured the Capitol building and met with U.S. Sen. Tim Johnson, a Vermillion native, where they discussed CAE and AWOL, and asked the senator questions related to education policy issues. They were accompanied to Washington, D.C., by Mejai Avoseh, associate professor in education and administration, and Jacquie Lonning, coordinator for the Center of Academic Engagement. A photograph of the USD group with Sen. Johnson is available for download at www.usd.edu/urelations/images/USD_students_Washington.jpg.