Jason Willis’ favorite spring break memory doesn’t involve late-night revelry on a crowded beach. Instead, he remembers a child’s laughter.
Willis is the president of Catholic University’s student chapter of Habitat for Humanity, an international nonprofit organization dedicated to building affordable homes for the poor. From March 1 to 9, Willis and about 50 other CUA students — armed with hammers, drills and caulking guns — will split into three groups, traveling to Americus, Ga. (Habitat’s headquarters), Santa Fe, N.M., and Long Beach, Calif., to build homes for low-income families.
They’re not the only CUA students who will dodge such spring break party spots such as Cancun, Mexico and Daytona Beach, Fla., to spend their vacations helping others. During the university’s spring break, scheduled the week of March 1- 8, approximately 80 students will undertake several different charitable projects, including work with Habitat and a nursing home in Jamaica, at locations in the United States and abroad.
“Volunteering gives students an alternative to partying,” says Willis, who will work at Habitat’s Santa Fe site. “They can do something better with their time and everyone I know who’s gone feels like they made a difference. It gives them a new perspective on reality and they visit places they normally wouldn’t visit and meet people they wouldn’t normally meet.”
Last year, Willis and 17 CUA students traveled to Austin, Texas, to help build a house for a mother and her three children. One afternoon, as dusk approached and the workday ended, several students put down their tools began to play with the giggling children. Willis sat down, watched the scene, a smile stretching across his face.
“It just brought me so much joy to know that we helped build a home for these kids,” he says. “We helped build memories, and that’s very rewarding.”
While the Habitat students will stay in the country, several campus ministry students will travel abroad. The Rev. Brad Heckathorne, O.F.M., Conv., CUA’s assistant chaplain to graduate students, will lead 13 students to Kingston, Jamaica, where they’ll work with the St. Patrick’s Foundation, a charity established to help the island city’s impoverished residents.
“Many of the people there live next to garbage dumps,” Father Heckathorne says. “The poverty is just appalling.”
The St. Patrick’s Foundation was founded in 1981 by Msgr. Richard Albert, who worked in CUA’s campus ministry program in the 1960s and ran “The House” for several years. The foundation consists of a day-care center for 3- to 6-year-olds, three schools for children ages 6 through 16 and a nursing home for the elderly.
“The school has a basic computer center and teaches reading, writing, woodworking and sewing,” Father Heckathorne says. “The CUA students will be helping students read, teaching the little kids and keep the elderly company.”
This is the second year students have worked with the foundation. The nursing residence, called St. Monica’s Home, has 31 inhabitants, three of whom have leprosy, which ran rampant through Jamaica in the late 1970s and early 1980s. When a government hospital was closed in 1981, the 12 original lepers there moved into St. Monica’s Home. Time and death have reduced that number.
“You see these people with no fingers and who are missing part of their faces, yet they still spend an hour each morning singing God’s praises,” Father Heckathorne says.
Katie Bower, a sophomore majoring in psychology and social work, is leading a quartet of CUA students to McKee, Ky., for WorkFest, a program sponsored by the Christian Appalachian Project, a nonprofit Christian organization founded 25 years ago to help impoverished areas of Kentucky, West Virginia and Tennessee. McKee is located in Kentucky’s eastern coal region. Its economy is dying, says Bower, whose godmother volunteered with the Christian Appalachian Project as a teenager. Dilapidated farmhouses litter the countryside, unemployment is high and the school system is limping.
“It’s a really poor area,” says Bower, whose group will help build and repair homes for low-income families. “There’s no industry or big business, and opportunities are limited. Living in D.C., I’ve encountered urban poverty, but never rural poverty.”
Such service trips benefit students because their world views are broadened, says the Rev. Robert Schlageter, O.F.M. Conv., university chaplain. “They’re exposed to a variety of experiences, have a keener understanding of the world around them and develop an appreciation for the things they have,” says Father Schlageter, who this summer will lead 20 CUA students on a three-week trip to San Lucas, Guatemala, a small working community inhabited by farmers and coffee plantation workers. The group will dig trenches, work at local schools and sort coffee beans.
While an increasing number of CUA students are getting involved in spring break service trips, they also do volunteer work locally throughout the year. Students from Campus Ministry deliver food to the homeless, serve in shelters and soup kitchens and tutor children in after-school programs. They also do regular collections of food and clothes for the needy and work with the elderly at nearby nursing homes.
“When students do service work — whether it’s in another country or across the street — it gives them a better appreciation of what they have,” Father Heckathorne says. “And it helps them give more of themselves.”
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