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Students embrace spring break to address global social issues

Instead of relaxing on a beach in Cancún or reconnecting with old friends on spring break, some Northeastern students spent their vacations engaged in community service projects throughout the world.

More than 100 students volunteering through the Center of Community Service’s Alternative Spring Break Program addressed critical, social issues such as affordable housing, disaster relief and youth education in Jamaica, the Dominican Republic and stateside, learning as much about themselves as they did of the culture and history of foreign nations.

“I learned the importance of keeping a positive attitude, and being grateful for everything that I have been blessed with,” said middler health science major Melissa McCarthy, who visited the Salomon Jorge School in Monte Cristi, Dominican Republic.

McCarthy helped teach fourth and fifth graders how to speak English, a skill vital for a child’s future success in a country with one of the world’s worst education systems, according to Kristen Simonelli, the associate director and service-learning coordinator for the Center of Community Service.

“The children were so eager to learn and so happy and fun to be around,” McCarthy said. “I understand and appreciate my education so much more now that I have been to the Dominican Republic.”

Simonelli accompanied students to Monte Cristi. They received a sobering experience, she said, when they visited a marketplace crowded with Haitians eager to load-up on food supplies that they hoped to last several months.

“It was absolute insanity,” Simonelli said. “People were pushing and shoving each other and carrying 50 pound bags of rice in wheelbarrows. They understand how it is not to have easy access to so much that we have access to in abundance.”

At God’s School in St. Elizabeth, Jamaica, students, in part, helped build a balance beam, paint a playground and teach elementary students the importance of proper nutrition.

Freshman human services major Laura Gould’s experience in the country emphasized the dichotomy between the day-to-day philosophy of those living in America and those living in Jamaica, she said. Each day after work, on a nearby beach, she observed the contented nature of Jamaican individuals listening to Rastafarian music.

“They were just enjoying their lives, listening to music and really being content and not worrying about anything else,” she said. “America has a set way of defining success,” she added, noting the expectation of a college degree and a “good job. Jamaicans are flexible and deal with things as they come.”

In addition to working with children in Jamaica and the Dominican Republic, Northeastern students teamed with Habitat for Humanity to serve as construction volunteers for painting and roofing projects in Arkansas and Virginia; helped with the rebuilding and recovery efforts from Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and Mississippi; volunteered at a camp for children with special needs and chronic illness in Texas; partnered with Animal Rescue New Orleans to help care for sheltered animals; and worked on trail maintenance and restoration in Tennessee and Arizona.

“Our students want to be global citizens,” said Sara De Ritter, associate director of service and community partnerships and University representative on the Jamaica trip. “They want to be involved in the community. This experience offered an opportunity to see the country; they weren’t in tourist areas, they were in real people’s houses, interacting with the locals, experiencing what different cultures have to offer.”

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