Chris Schilmoeller is going on an alternative spring break trip this year because for him, it’s the Second Joyful Mystery all over again.

“Mary brings Jesus to Elizabeth, and look at all the good things that happened to that,” said the University of Nebraska psychology major. “There’s so much need out there. I want to help bring Jesus to the people.”

Chris is referring to the spring break alternative trip in which he’ll not only participate but will organize this year as part of the university’s St. Thomas Aquinas Newman Student Center ministry.

This March, he’ll board a rented van with five other Newman Center students — 2 men and 3 women — and head off to New York City to help the Missionaries of Charity in their work there.

The group is one of seven such teams spending spring break helping the Missionaries in various cities throughout the United States. The New York team, like the six-person teams, will help feed the poor, minister to the needy and bring Christ’s message to others.

This year, Chris hopes to take the traditional trip to a new level by doing street evangelization in areas such as Central Park and Times Square.

“If you go in with the Spirit,” he said, “God will guide you through. We want to talk to the homeless, maybe take them for a meal and ask about their lives. People treat the homeless like dirt. They just want somebody to listen to them.”

For John Book, a computer science major at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas, taking a spring break mission trip means taking a trip back home.

“I’m originally from New Orleans, and have been wanting to organize a service trip to that area since Katrina hit in 2006,” he said. “Many had no home to go back to, and many still don’t. I want to give back in a way that I haven’t been able until now.”

He’ll get his chance to give back when he travels to New Orleans with eight other student members of St. Mary’s Catholic Center near campus.

“We’ll be doing everything from dry-walling to painting,” said trip organizer and campus ministry intern Rachael Harmon. “I’m hoping that we can be the hands and feet of Christ, to help bring relief to those still suffering.”

Industrial distribution major Erica Williams is going, too. She has been to the party spheres over spring break and would never do it again.

“You spend a week hanging out with people you wouldn’t normally hang out with and do things you normally wouldn’t do in your everyday life, but you’re never happy with yourself afterward. I want to come home from spring break happy that I’ve done something for humanity.”

Those Who Serve

Those who work in campus ministry will tell you that spring break mission trips not only benefit those being served, they also benefit those who serve.

“These are life-changing experiences,” said Carol Brown, executive director of Capstone Missions. Capstone is a non-profit organization that organizes and facilitates mission trips for young adults.

“The change these young people undergo is phenomenal,” Brown said. “Some become trip groupies and go again and again. Some even come back and change their majors to more service-oriented careers.”

Father Robert Matya, Pastor of St. Thomas Aquinas Newman Student Center, experienced that change himself as a young adult. Now he witnesses the same change in the young people to whom he ministers.

“It’s a great opportunity to see life outside their own bubble,” he said. “It broadens their horizons. It’s about so much more than social service, it’s about engaging them in their faith.”

St. Thomas Aquinas Newman Student Center RCIA Coordinator Sister Mary Michael, of the School Sisters of Christ the King, noticed that students who’ve gone on spring break mission trips come back with a stronger commitment to the Church and others. This subsequently attracts other students not only to the student center, but to service in the Church.

“They’re a bright light for others,” she said. “They love the Church, care about other people, and want to do something meaningful with their lives.”

Spring break mission trips offer tremendous benefits, but they do come at a cost. Organizing the trips takes time, effort and money. In many cases, the students must procure their own funding or raise funds from outside sources. Yet, that doesn’t seem to be a significant deterrence.

“Really, these students are forgoing the opportunity to make money, as most work at paying jobs over breaks,” said University of Wisconsin-Whitewater Newman Center Campus Minister Brian Zanin. “That’s in addition to coming up with the money for the trip. But that doesn’t stop them because they’re so dedicated.”

This year, 55 UW-Whitewater Newman Center students will pay $400 each to assist Katrina relief efforts in Biloxi, Miss.

“There’s a long tradition in the Newman movement to create Spring Break alternatives,” Zanin explained. “A lot of preparation and organizing goes into pulling this off. But the gain in terms of service, community building among the students, and putting faith into action far, far outweighs the cost.”

30 New Friends

Jason Kasper, sophomore Economics major at UW-Whitewater knows that for a fact. He’s been on Newman Center spring break mission trips before, and he knows this one will be just as enriching.

“Having faith in God for allowing me to go on this trip will be enough for me because everything happens for a reason,” he said. “It’s what we actually take from the experience back to our daily lives that makes it all worthwhile.”

Spending a week under sometimes less than comfortable circumstances (20 hours driving in a cramped van over rugged roads, for example) can be a trial. On the other hand, it builds not only character but also a deep sense of community and common purpose through which lasting friendships are formed.

Mark and Brenda Montanye met at the Newman Center during their freshman year and both participated in the center’s spring break mission trips.

“Everybody kept telling me, ‘Go on this trip, and you’ll have 30 new friends when you get back,’” Brenda said. “I went and I had 30 new friends when I got back.”

Brenda’s friendship with Mark deepened and the couple was married last August. Now they live in Arkansas — Brenda is a speech pathology graduate student at Arkansas State University, and Mark is a social studies teacher.

Brenda’s favorite memory of her mission trips is the team’s practice of group reflection each night before bed.

“We’d reflect on what we’d done during the day and how we’d made a difference in other people’s lives,” she said. “Then we reflected on the difference it had made in our own lives.”

Marge Fenelon is based in

Cudahy, Wisconsin.