Alternative Spring Break for 55 UMass Amherst Students Focuses on Community Service

AMHERST, Mass. - Approximately 55 University of Massachusetts students will spend their spring break next week volunteering for community service projects in several communities, including the nearby city of Holyoke and three Virginia towns.

Each year, nearly 20,000 students across the nation participate in Alternative Spring Break. The program at UMass is distinctive because it is tied to a rigorous academic curriculum, said Art Keene, the anthropology professor who coordinates the program. Students enroll in the honors course "Grassroots Community Development" offered through Commonwealth College and the anthropology department. Leading up to spring break, students read about and discuss issues associated with grassroots community development. Students travel over spring break to communities in which they partner with local grassroots organizations to work together in a week of service. The remainder of the semester is spent reflecting on the experience through writing, more reading, and presentations. The UMass program is in its fifth year.

"Students take the knowledge they''ve acquired in the classroom and put it to work in the real world," Keene said. "We strive to create long-term relationships between UMass and its partner communities. The interaction between community members and students creates a situation in which everyone is both a teacher and a learner."

Locally, UMass students will spend the week in Holyoke on a project to turn dilapidated buildings into low-income housing. Students will work side-by-side with young people from Holyoke involved in YouthBuild, a national program that offers job training, education, counseling, and leadership development opportunities to unemployed and out-of-school young adults through the construction and rehabilitation of affordable housing in their own communities. YouthBuild is a branch of Nueva Esperanza of Holyoke, a grassroots organization and developer of low-income housing. After spending their days constructing housing in Holyoke, UMass students and members of YouthBuild will spend their evenings discussing ways to better understand the challenges that face low-income families in Holyoke.

Other groups of UMass students will travel to three Virginia towns for separate community service projects. In Ivanhoe, a deindustrialized mining town in Appalachian Virginia, students will work with the Ivanhoe Civic League on town beautification projects. In New Road, a town on Virginia''s isolated Eastern Shore, students will perform beautification and demolition, and in Cape Charles, also on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, students will work on new housing construction.

UMass students will also participate in a reverse spring break program, which began last year. From Apr. 24-27, students at the University will host young adults from Holyoke on the Amherst campus. They will attend college classes and cultural events, and participate in leadership workshops.

The Alternative Spring Break program is one of six coordinated by the UMass Alliance for Community Transformation (UACT), a partnership of students and faculty and members of grassroots community organizations. In addition to Alternative Spring Break and reverse spring breaks, UACT also organizes alternative summer breaks and alternative service weekends.

Art Keene can be reached at 413/253-3421 or