- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 23, 2003

Boston College junior Jeff Capotosto needed a break from the daily grind. Like most students, he hit the road, hoping to put some miles between himself and the stress and responsibility that riddle higher education.Mr. Capotosto's spring break unlike those of many of his peers didn't include any tequila shots, no honeycomb of revelers crashing cheap motels, no random hookups with unknown coeds. He traveled to Washington instead on his own dime. Here the 21-year-old and his compatriots spent a week laying insulation and posting drywall on a couple of houses in projects supervised by D.C. Habitat, an affiliate of Habit for Humanity International, the Christian nonprofit housing organization based in Americus, Ga.

Nearly 30,000 students nationwide will participate in some type of alternative spring break this year, says Dan McCabe, executive director of Break Away, a national nonprofit group that assists colleges and communities in promoting alternative break programs. Organizers say this type of trip appeals to students who want to make new friends, help other people, learn about different cultures and experience a new environment minus the bacchanal more frequently associated with spring break.

Before his trip, Mr. Capotosto said he was confident that his vacation, organized through Boston College's service group, Appalachian Volunteers, would be a great opportunity "everyone coming together for a cause," he says.

"A lot of times you're worried about your own life," he says. "This is a week where you can actually do something for someone else. It's a nice thing to do that's also rewarding for everyone involved."

Students such as Mr. Capotosto are in the minority.

Young men and women who partake in "party" spring breaks still vastly outnumber those taking alternative spring breaks, Mr. McCabe says.

"There are tons of deals especially if you're willing to cram eight or 10 people into a motel room," he says of the trips pitched to students wanting to party. "I would say $199 for a week is not an outrageous special that pops up in college newspapers for a place like South Padre Island in Texas and Panama City, Actually, scores of American colleges and universities offer links to alternative spring-break programs, says Mr. McCabe, often through on-campus service learning centers or civic-education organizations now seen on the campuses of more than half of the country's colleges and universities.

In most cases, these centers are driven by full-time professional staff, he says. Students, however, manage many of the outreach projects therein, gaining skills in marketing, leadership and general human relations. They participate in a smorgasbord of possibilities, from tutoring children to caring for the ill to providing maintenance and construction services.

Habitat for Humanity offers outreach opportunities via Collegiate Challenge, a year-round alternative-break program for high-school and college students ages 16 and older.

The program has been growing "in leaps and bounds" since its inception in 1990 it barely can accommodate all the students who request placement, says Amy Davies, Collegiate Challenge manager.

About 10,500 students nationwide participated in this year's spring-break program, Ms. Davies says. They worked on houses with local affiliates around the United States. Most constructed homes from scratch framing, hanging drywall, roofing, and painting under the watchful eyes of experienced construction supervisors.

The students stayed in volunteer centers such as YMCAs, churches, school gyms or college dorms. They worked eight-hour days paying $100 a week for that pleasure supplying their own food, as well.

"They'll learn valuable skills about working together," Ms. Davies says. "Their eyes will become opened to poverty situations right here in our own country. When students return to their schools after a trip like this, they're very interested in becoming involved locally. They're real fired up, with a real dedication to work and service."

D.C. Habitat is playing host to Collegiate Challenge students such as Mr. Capotosto during the four weeks of March. His parents "are very cool with it," he says.

"They bought me a sleeping bag the other day," he says. "I think they're pretty happy with what I'm doing as opposed to one big drunken stupor for a week."

His father, Ron Capotosto, says he's delighted with his son's choice for the third year now to take a service-oriented spring break.

"I think it's fantastic," he says from his office in Woburn, Mass., where he works as a scientist for Polaroid Corp. "He obviously enjoys doing it and it's very rewarding for him. It's something I'm extremely proud of."

Eva Battle, a payroll administrator in Richmond, says she's happy and honored that daughter Natalie Battle has chosen to take a community-service spring break, as well.

Through the Center for Service and Leadership at Northern Virginia's George Mason University, where she's a junior, Natalie Battle traded sand and sun and relaxation for an alternative break in New York City.

There she spent a week caring for victims of HIV/AIDS via the Gay Men's Health Crisis, an AIDS advocacy and education organization.

Natalie Battle views her alternative spring break as a chance to learn about HIV/AIDS and to spread her feelings of good will toward affected people.

"I love to help others, and I think this trip will be a good way to give back to the community," she said before she left. "I wouldn't go to Florida [to party] or anything like that. I don't have any interest in that."

Still, says her mom, "Natalie could have chosen to do a lot of things on spring break, like working at her job at a supermarket in customer service where she works when she's home earning some money. But she chose to go to New York and help and be a part of this. I think it's a wonderful opportunity for her."

The nation will see the benefits of spring-break service 10 years down the line, says Mr. McCabe of Break Away.

"We indeed are creating more active citizens," he says. "They're people who are better-informed, eager to seek out information and making sound decisions to benefit the most people. In the long run, they're changing society."

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