- Associated Press - Sunday, May 28, 2017

FLORIEN, La. (AP) - The phrase “college students on spring break” might bring to mind images of partying in Cancun. It probably doesn’t make you think of students driving two and a half hours to spend a week doing yard work for free.

But that’s exactly what a group of students from University of Louisiana at Lafayette and Nicholls State did. They spent the week at Hodges Gardens State Park - camping and canoeing when they weren’t trimming azalea bushes and picking up leaves.

Members of the student organization Chi Alpha Christian Fellowship at both schools chose to serve at the Sabine Parish park that is said to be in danger of closing.

The Friends of Hodges Gardens State Park group and the nearby town of Many hosted a meeting in March to help “keep Hodges Gardens State Park from closing,” anticipating that the park would not be funded adequately for the upcoming fiscal year beginning July 1.

“We’re not looking at any closures (of state parks) at the time,” Louisiana Office of State Parks Public Information Officer Sharon Broussard said in April. “Operations will depend on our budget, which will be settled during the upcoming (legislative) session.”

The student organization chose the park after Chi Alpha Director Eric Treuil and his wife had visited Hodges Gardens and recognized a need.

Between what he saw and news that the park was in jeopardy, it was clear the park could use some extra free help.

“So we went up there honestly just to serve,” said Cole Lusby, a campus minister with Chi Alpha at UL Lafayette.

About 15 people went on the trip, including four Chi Alpha staff members and two international students. Many had been on local mission trips, but this was some students’ first trip to a state park.

Although Niya Davis, 19, loves nature, she had never been camping. She helped pick up the trimmings that fell as others cut back azalea bushes - “a lot of azalea bushes,” Jerrell Prier, 22, said.

“We work well together,” said Davis, a geology major from Lafayette.

As first-timers, the two learned a lot on the trip.

“I learned how beautiful and interesting those types of parks are,” Prier said.

Prier had never heard of Hodges Gardens, which is far from Lafayette and his hometown of Mansura.

He and the other students received something in return.

“It was good to go for spring break where it was really peaceful and get away from the hectic (school life),” said Prier, a computer engineering major.

Davis said the week before finals was the perfect time for such a trip.

“It was hectic,” she said. “I just needed to detach myself and focus. I like to volunteer and I like Christ, so I was able to do that and get my mind right.”

After being exposed to the beauty and tranquility of the park, Prier hopes more take the opportunity to experience it for themselves and visit Hodges Gardens.

“It definitely serves a purpose,” he said. “Who wouldn’t want to go over there? I wanted to stay. It definitely served a purpose for me.”

Lusby encourages more missions groups to visit the park and pitch in.

“They’ve got a lot to offer out there,” he said. “It’s an incredible campus.”

He expect the Chi Alpha group to go back and would like to involve other schools.

“It’s important that students ultimately live in community with one another,” Lusby said. “And serving shows their heart, who they are. … The body of Christ is diverse, from different geographic backgrounds. Ultimately we want to connect students and communities.”

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