U students help build, remodel homes over spring break

University students found warm weather and an opportunity to help low-income families by participating in Habitat for Humanity International’s Collegiate Challenge.

Mary Stegmeir

As spring break destinations go, the setting was perfect – the sunny sands of Jacksonville Beach, Fla.

But sophomore Ashley Wilhelm and 11 other University students who journeyed to the balmy getaway during their weeklong break from classes donned work gloves instead of swimsuits.

The group took part in Habitat for Humanity International’s Collegiate Challenge, a program that builds and remodels homes for low-income people. A total of 48 students from the University traveled to four different locations: Anniston, Ala., Crystal Coast, N.C., Jacksonville Beach, Fla., and Oakland, Calif., to spend their spring break at a construction site.

“It’s not a vacation,” Wilhelm said. “It was hard work.”

Wilhelm, the Jacksonville Beach trip leader, said her building team’s duties, which included shingling and installing doors and windows, left the students feeling tired but fulfilled at the end of their workdays.

“It really gives you a sense of satisfaction that you are helping someone out,” she said. “It was definitely a good experience.”

Students in the Collegiate Challenge program build and remodel homes in inner city and rural areas in the United States and in disadvantaged communities overseas from mid-February to mid-April.

Collegiate Challenge volunteers from across the nation will build 450 houses at 200 different work sites in that two-month span.

Each University volunteer is paid $325 to take part in the program. The fee covered the groups’ transportation, lodging and meal costs.

For Austin Miller, who led the trip to Anniston, Ala., the combination of warm weather and the chance to help low-income families was an unbeatable combination.

“You’ve got to do something with spring break,” he said. “I’d rather not just sit around. I’d rather go somewhere warm and have the chance to help people.”

Meghan Funke, Collegiate Challenge coordinator with the University Habitat for Humanity chapter, said the trips offered students a chance to soak up the sun while making a difference.

“Students can work hard but still have a lot of fun and do something meaningful,” Funke said.

She said most students who take part in the spring break trips enjoy the experience and become more involved in the University Habitat for Humanity chapter after they return.

The trips also give students an opportunity to try something new, Funke said. Volunteers who have never held a hammer get a crash course in construction procedures and worksite safety from the house’s work supervisor.

“You learn to do things you never thought that you could do,” said Funke, who got involved with the University’s Habitat for Humanity chapter after going on a spring break trip last year.

“It’s nice to get to do something where you actually see progress.”

Many students enjoy the opportunity to meet the family who will live in the house being built, Funke said. Volunteers work beside the future homeowners at some of the work sites.

“It’s a unique experience,” she said. “It’s the biggest accomplishment of that family’s life, and you helped them.”

Mary Stegmeir welcomes comments at [email protected]