Seble Girmay wasn’t sure what to expect when she signed up for the University of Mary Washington’s alternative spring break adventure as a freshman. Four years later, she’s a seasoned team leader with a purpose-filled direction.
“My experience with Habitat for Humanity has shown me that what I want to do with my life is to spend it causing as much change as I possibly can,” said Girmay, a senior who plans to join AmeriCorps after graduation.
She was among 34 students and four staff advisors who, with UMW’s student-run Community Outreach and Resources (COAR) program, recently spanned three states – Florida, Mississippi and Georgia – to build houses and clean up storm-damaged yards.
UMW’s alternative spring break trips are arranged in conjunction with Habitat for Humanity’s Collegiate Challenge program, which has worked to bring more than 250,000 students to in-need communities over the past three decades.
“I keep coming back to participate in alternative spring break because it reflects what I value,” said Girmay, who has led a contingent of student volunteers on the annual service trips for the past three years.
This year, her team traveled to Casselberry, Florida, where they wielded hammers and nail guns, cut wood with table saws, and built and erected townhouse walls and ceilings. They worked side by side with families who watched their dreams of homeownership take shape around them, like the single mother who worked two jobs and was ecstatic that students had traveled so far to lend a hand.
“To see this hardworking and deserving woman be able to get affordable housing for her and her children is why I sign up for alternative spring break,” said Girmay. “With every trip, I continuously learn that even the smallest act of kindness has a profound effect on someone else’s life.”
UMW’s Director of Service Christina Eggenberger, who traveled with students to Tupelo, Mississippi, has overseen the annual service trip for the past 12 years and sees the student transformation each time.
“The type of student who gives up their break to serve others shows the best of UMW,” said Eggenberger, who also advises COAR. “The students are always learning and trying to make the world a better place even if it’s just one nail at a time.”
Eggenberger enjoys watching the volunteers form friendships while working in different communities.
“Most of them don’t know each other when the trip starts, but by the end of the week you would never know that,” she said. “These trips are sometimes the beginning of lifelong friendships.”
Junior Megan Lengel and seniors Clara Doin and Claire Reilly spent the week in Albany, Georgia, where a massive tornado tore through the community. The group painted woodwork, restored rotted wooden framework and cleaned up yards, including the home of a veteran whose home was damaged by the powerful January storm.
“He was very thankful for our help, and we were glad to be there for him,” Reilly said of her first alternative spring break experience.
The trip was the third for Lengel, who already is looking forward to volunteering next year.
“The whole reason I continue doing this is because of the people we help,” said Lengel. “They are always so appreciative and grateful for the work we do, and putting a face to what we are working for is a fantastic feeling.”