- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 16, 2002

Spring break is widely characterized as collegiate hedonism: drink well, laugh often and have much sex. Or so it goes for many.

But not for students like Divya Patel, a junior majoring in microbiology and cell science at the University of Florida. She and nine other Florida students drove 18 hours north on March 2 to volunteer at a nursing home in the District. They likely passed hordes of students heading south for the party of the year.

The students belong to Florida Alternative Break (FAB), started in 1994 and affiliated with a national break-alternative group called Breakaway. FAB's three main goals are service, education and reflection.

They work five days a week from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Washington Home and Hospice in Northwest, spending most of their time helping the elderly residents to and from activities, talking to them and providing companionship.

"I think it's wonderful that they break into their holiday to be with us," said Marian London, 86, a widow for the past 42 years, who enjoyed her time with the younger people and understood the effect it would have on them.

"It will be [something] they'll never forget," she said.

Mrs. London was right. Vincent Yeung, 19, a freshman pre-med student, spent five hours with her one day and four hours another.

"It's an experience I'll never forget. This has left a lasting impression on me," he said.

Miss Patel, 20, sat at a table in a common area of the nursing home, listening to the senior citizens around her sing the national anthem and "Take Me Out to the Ball Game." She sang along at times.

The students, who don't get paid, have to spend $200 of their own money to come to Washington, where they stay in one of the city's churches. During their first night in the church, the pipes burst, flooding the hall with 3 inches of water.

Alcohol is out of the question. Anyone caught drinking is sent home and has to find their own transportation.

Most of the students came for the same reasons: to serve, to give back to others, to do something worthwhile with their break.

"For me to come was one of the most difficult decisions of my life," said Miss Patel, who wants to be a doctor. She acknowledged she should have stayed home to study for the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) during the break, like many of her friends did.

"I need the time to study. But I know that just a good MCAT score wouldn't make me a good doctor. To be a good doctor, you need humanity and compassion," said Miss Patel, who grew up in India and lived in Wisconsin before moving to Florida.

Colleen Cole, 19, a nursing student at Florida, almost didn't come on the trip with FAB. "I had my application filled out and ready to turn in, and I almost didn't," she said, adding that some of her friends were in Cancun, Mexico, and at the beach.

"Some people said, 'Don't you want to have fun on your spring break? It's a time to relax,'" she said.

"But I'm not a completely selfless person. … I came because I knew I would have a grand time," Miss Cole said.

Attitudes like that made their mark on Lauren Feeney, volunteer coordinator for the Washington Home, who worked with groups from Florida, Michigan and Maine. She said that at first, her expectations of the students were low.

"My first assumption was that they would be off visiting the Smithsonian," she said. "It blew me away when I realized they really wanted to do service. This isn't some feel-good cover for them being able to go to a cool city."

The number of volunteers reflects a growing national trend among college students who want to do more than party, Miss Feeney said. The Michigan group volunteered a week before the Florida group arrived. A group from Maine came a week after they left.

More than 30 college students will volunteer at the home over a three-week period. The weeklong spring break period varies from school to school.

FAB sent seven groups on trips over spring break this year, said Paio Sam, 20, an accounting major and site leader for the D.C. trip.

He said each trip has different focus issues, which are subject to change each year. This year's issues include AIDS and HIV, urban education, American Indian reservation life, the environment, low-income housing, teen pregnancy, and the elderly.

Mr. Sam's love for service springs from gratefulness. "My parents came from Vietnam," he said. "I feel very fortunate to be in the U.S., and I just try to do my part."

Plus, he said, "The lifestyle you have during spring break drinking and going out all night that's not really for me."

Jack Bishop, 85, spent some time with the students and wished they could stay longer. "It's been amazing," he said, "how much interest they've shown … . I don't know how I would do if I were that young and talking to older people."

Last week, the 10 Florida students received the Pollin Award for outstanding service to the community during halftime of a Washington Wizards-Detroit Pistons basketball game.

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