By SHEA STASKOWSKI
For a group of Mississippi State students, spring break was a week full of community service.
Sponsored by the Student Leadership and Community Engagement department, 25 MSU students spent their spring break in Niceville, Fla., not relaxing a beach, but rolling up their sleeves to do meaningful work.
With the help of an organization called Break Away, which places teams of universities students in community service endeavors, students had the opportunity to take part in several service activities for the first-ever alternative spring break offered by MSU.
Each day brought a new community service opportunity for the students. During their six-day trip, the students worked with preschool children at Niceville Head Starts, landscaped a Habitat for Humanity house, built an oyster reef, restored a stream, made a trail in a national park and built a boardwalk.
For MSU junior Robert Phyfer, the alternative spring break was not seen as a missed opportunity to lie on a beach all week.
“I don’t see it as actually giving up my spring break,” Phyfer said. “I have a passion just for helping people in general, so I saw this as an opportunity to continue something I’m passionate about.”
MSU freshman Perceus Mody, who is new to America, saw this alternative spring break as a way to acclimate himself with American service.
“This was my first volunteering experience in America, and it’s the best experience I’ve ever have,” Mody explained.
MSU junior Jessica Blackmon was thankful for the opportunity to have a hand in so many community service endeavors in such a short time.
“I was amazed because one day I helped build an oyster reef, and the next day I had kids hanging all over me, and the next day I was pulling trees out of a stream,” Blackmon said. “That to me is an amazing feeling. It touched me.”
“After each day, you could definitely see how much of a difference we made and how much we did,” Matt Sherman, MSU sophomore, added.
Each service project affected the MSU students in a different way, and each day brought a chance to start the experience all over again in a different setting.
“To me, my favorite part was making the oyster reef because I think that will be something that is there for a long time,” Mody said. “It will form a artificial reef that purifies the water.”
The oyster reef project took place in Bluewater Bay between Niceville and Destin, Fla. The students hauled more than 24 tons of oysters in 800 netted bags, and stacked them on a foundation several hundred feet off shore. The oysters will eventually settle, and they will work to purify the water that may have been affected by the Gulf oil spill.
At the Head Start locations, the students served as teachers and friends reading to the students, helping with arts and crafts and playing with them during recess.
“I had an awesome time [at Head Start],” Phyfer said. “At first, I was scared because I had never worked with kids that young before. But once I got in there, they fell in love with me, and I fell in love with them.
“It really showed me how kids want to be treated — They just want to be loved,” Phyfer added. “It showed me that most kids don’t get the attention they want, and it showed me, for future sake, how to treat my kids.”
During the stream restoration, the students waded chest-deep in frigid water to remove debris to help the dependent wild life thrive.
“The stream restoration was my favorite,” Phyfer said. “We all got in there and got really muddy... How cool is that to say you saved frogs and snakes on your spring break?”
“The best thing I can say about all of this is that you felt this burden being lifted after each day,” Phyfer added. “You feel so much peace because you’ve done so much good for so many people.”
Montgomery Leadership Program graduate student Rochelle Smith, with the help of Maroon Volunteer Center Graduate Student Jeremy Hall, helped organize the event to make the first-ever MSU alternative spring break as meaningful for the students as possible.
“It was a week-long experience where they engaged in meaningful community service and accomplished something as a valued member of a community,” Smith said. “Maybe this will spark something inside these students to make a meaningful change in the community.”
Smith and the Student Leadership and Community Engagement department hope to make the alternative spring break an annual event, and for the students who participated this year, they already consider themselves signed up for next year.
“I would definitely participate again to do more, experience more and help more,” Phyfer said. “Anything I can do to make a positive impact, I will.”