Better Than Beach Blanket Bingo, Any Spring

It’s many a parent’s nightmare. A college-age son or daughter heads to some steamy spring-break destination, cools off with a few too many alcoholic beverages and then, somehow, ends up appearing in the kind of “too-hot-to-handle” videos hawked on late-night TV.

And who knows what the adolescent was doing when the camera wasn’t rolling?

Kelly Orbik, a senior at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb., knows the scene. “A lot of poor choices are made during what seems like an all-inclusive getaway to an exotic place,” she says. It’s those poor choices that have made the producers of “Girls Gone Wild” videos, not to mention Jerry Springer, wealthy men.

Orbik and fellow Creighton student Marie Young have put together their own spring-break video, loading it with candid pictures and making it available online. There’s not a beach in sight, though.

Instead, students are pictured planting in fields, chopping wood, teaching grade-school students, moving bales of hay, mopping and even knitting. All of which show Creighton students in action during one of the university’s numerous spring-break service trips, a Creighton Center for Service and Justice program now in its 24th year.

A record 200 Creighton students spent their March 6-10 spring break this year working at 25 sites across the country. They taught grade-school students in a desperately poor Chicago neighborhood, repaired homes in rural West Virginia, cared for elderly and disabled nursing home residents in Kentucky, and helped clean Hurricane Katrina’s destruction in Louisiana and Mississippi.

Not your typical stops on the MTV spring break tour.

“It is hard to know what to do sometimes,” says Orbik, who made her fourth such trip this year working at a food bank and shelter in Cleveland. “These communities all across the country want our students to come — to learn from them and with them, how to love the poor and marginalized in our society.”

Orbik and friends aren’t the only college students breaking with the traditional spring break these days. More and more, students from universities across the country are spending the annual week away from school serving others instead of themselves.

“On the whole, our numbers are growing,” says Jill Piacitelli, director of Break Away, a national nonprofit organization that trains, assists and connects campuses and communities through alternative break programs. (They’re online at

She spoke with the Register from her cell phone en route from Break Away’s headquarters at Florida State University to a national conference in Nashville for students involved in service learning and activism. A crowd of 1,500 was expected.

Break Away began 15 years ago in response to the decadence that so many spring breaks had become. “The kids go to beaches and just party nonstop for a week,” Piacitelli says. “A lot of alcohol, a lot of pretty compromised morals.”

And all of it: there for the world to see on corporate-backed MTV. “People give away huge cash prizes and give away tons of free product, including alcohol,” Piacitelli says. “It’s insanity down there.” Big cash also comes from “the kids themselves,” she adds. “They’re pouring so much money into these; I think that made it get a lot more wild.”

Numbers bear her out. When Christopher Reynolds of American Demographics magazine last looked at spring-break statistics, he reported that students spent $1 billion between Florida and Texas in 2003.

But Break Away’s numbers are up, too, with more than 100 chapter schools and 400-plus nonprofit partners. The group counted 35,000 students to “bypass the beach” last year for alternative spring breaks. Piacitelli guesses that many schools are adding one to three trips a year as alternatives grow in popularity.

Spiritual Break

At Break Away member James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va., for instance, the trips have become so popular since their start in 1993 that a lottery was required this year to determine student participation. More than 300 students attended 23 alternative spring-break events.

“Parents are generally very excited about the program,” says Lorelei Esbenshade, associate director of James Madison’s community-service program. “Each trip has a faculty or staff member along. They are drug- and alcohol-free service trips that include time for reflection and learning.”

Piacitelli estimates 10- to 12% of alternative spring breaks have a religious component. That includes a new component James Madison added this year: a trip to the Loaves and Fishes Soup Kitchen in Nashville run by Catholic Charities Refugee Services. Participants focused on resettlement issues, assisting with activities for children, tending a household goods warehouse, and prepping apartments for newly arriving refugees.

Spiritual practices likewise constitute a significant part of the alternative spring breaks run by Penn State University’s Catholic Campus Ministry. “All of our trips include prayer and meditation, Mass, theological reflection and discussion,” says Benedictine Father Matthew Laffey, director of the ministry.

There’s plenty of work, too. The Catholic ministry oversaw 60 students on three spring break trips — to the Gulf States region to help with post-Hurricane efforts, the Dominican Republic to minister to Haitian refugees, and to Tijuana, Mexico, for work on Our Lady of Angels Church and at Casa Hogar de los Niños orphanage. Students were to present the orphanage with clothing, shoes, toys, books, school and medical supplies — and about $5,000.

“I am touched at how the students respond to the trips,” Father Laffey says. “Students returning can’t wait to go back. Some of our students, because of their experiences on these trips, end up volunteering for an extended time after graduation. Right now, one of our 2005 graduates, Greg Mason, is living in Pandiasou, Haiti, and working with the Brothers and Sisters of the Incarnation.”

Service Professionals

It’s not hard to envision a similar path for Orbik after she graduates from Creighton with majors in Spanish and justice in society. She’s a pro at spring-break service. As a freshman she worked with Hispanic immigrants in South Omaha, Neb. Her sophomore year she helped at a homeless shelter in Mankato, Minn. As a junior she assisted at St. Peter the Apostle School in Pascagoula, Miss. (five months later destroyed by Katrina), then attended a summer mission trip to Guatemala. This year it’s Cleveland in the spring.

Her actions, and those of other Creighton students, speak volumes — one reason why the recruiting video she and Marie Young put together featured so many pictures. The two coeds end their video with a challenge: “Do you have the courage and compassion to hang out with a person who is homeless, to sit with a child learning to read or to gut a house ravaged by a hurricane?”

At Creighton and other universities across the country, thousands of students are spending their spring breaks answering a resounding Yes.

Anthony Flott writes from

Papillion, Nebraska.