UC Berkeley News
Web Feature

UC Berkeley Web Feature

'Alternative' spring breakers provide relief for Gulf Coast hurricane victims

– Opting for an altruistic spring break, a group of students at the University of California, Berkeley, will use their hard-earned hiatus March 27-April 1 to help Hurricane Katrina victims along the Gulf Coast.

No plush hotel rooms or beach parties for this crew, who will be sleeping in tents and eating at shelters, among other makeshift dining establishments.

As part of UC Berkeley's "Alternative Breaks" program, 20 students, three staff members and a theater professor will travel to Biloxi, Miss., to help rebuild hurricane-ravaged rural areas and learn more about the socio-economic factors that compounded the devastation. A Gulf Coast disaster relief trip will take place each spring break through 2009, thanks to the financial support of the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs.

Another 15 UC Berkeley students will head to the San Diego-Tijuana area for an alternative break studying immigration and border issues. Thirteen more will spend time in Oakland and San Francisco doing two projects - one on nonviolence, the other about environmental sustainability and food justice.

The Katrina crew, in partnership with Hands on USA volunteer network, will clear debris and serve food to the homeless in shelters, among other tasks. They will also set up an online distance tutoring program for children in the area.

"I expect to be completely overwhelmed by all the physical destruction," said "Katrina Break" student leader Emily Novick, 19, an engineering student who grew up in Baton Rouge. "At the same time, though, we're going to look for the silver lining, focusing on the culture of the Gulf Coast . the closeness of the community. We're going down there as students to learn."

Until now, UC Berkeley's alternative breaks were exclusively organized and attended by students. However, this year, Shannon Steen, a UC Berkeley assistant professor of theater, dance and performance studies with family in Mississippi, asked to come along.

"My family was really involved in the rebuilding efforts," Steen said. "I have a cousin in economic development in Louisiana, and my mother is a veterinarian and worked with displaced pets. I just had a feeling that I had to do something, too."

To prepare for the Gulf Coast trip, student trip leaders have been teaching a two-unit, student-led "DeCal" - Democratic Education at Cal - course on the Gulf Coast's background and challenges. The Hurricane Katrina class has been held Tuesday evenings from 6-7:30 p.m. at Evans Hall. The final class was this week and focused on logistical preparations for spring break and students' expectations.

"We've had some pretty lively discussions about racism in the South," Novick said.

One-hundred-and-twenty UC Berkeley students applied to the Alternative Breaks program. Of about 70 who applied for the Gulf Coast trip, 20 were accepted. Criteria included life experiences and an essay demonstrating the author's passion or enthusiasm about the issue at hand.

The students on the Gulf Coast trip also will attend a March 27 summit at Tulane University at which community groups and visitors involved in disaster relief efforts will share stories and insights about the rebuilding efforts.

Students at UC Berkeley's Cal Corps Public Service Center started the Alternative Breaks program five years ago to help other students gain a closer understanding of poverty, homelessness, healthcare, education, immigration and other social issues through "out-of-the-classroom" experiences.

The program is part of a nationwide move away from the traditionally frivolous spring break ritual, and thousands of students around the country are expected to seek altruistic alternatives.

Erin Cooper, for example, a third-year UC Berkeley student majoring in English and economics, is leading the San Diego-Tijuana alternative break. Her group will meet with local organizations on both sides of the border to learn about topics including undocumented immigration, border security, health and safety conditions and the effects of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The students will serve meals and do other community service projects in La Morita, Tijuana.

They also will meet with the U.S. Border Patrol as well as with Border Angels, a non-profit group trying to stop immigrant deaths along the U.S.-Mexico border.