Last week, with Mother Nature providing a brief respite from winter’s brutal assault, a group of seven students from Concordia University in Seward, Neb., took advantage of the sun’s warmth by pruning overgrown shrubs and removing a rotted section of a container garden at a house along Route 188 in Jefferson, Greene County.
One freshman, five sophomores and one junior from this Lutheran-affiliated school in the nation’s heartland were among hundreds of college students who chose to participate in Habitat for Humanity’s Collegiate Challenge during spring break. In Washington County, 10 students from Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, Ky., also chose to a forego a tropical trip to help remodel a donated home in Cokeburg.
Collegiate Challenge, which began in 1989 and is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, invites students to spend one week working with Habitat affiliates to build homes and improve communities. During Collegiate Challenge’s 25-year history, more than 230,000 students have donated nearly $24 million to Habitat affiliates through the fee, now $150, they each pay to participate in the program. During spring break 2014, the groups will donate more than $1.5 million to Habitat.
Donned in a tattered jumpsuit with a loaded tool belt swinging from his hip, Western Kentucky University senior and Habitat chapter President Jeffry Edwards was gracious and excitable as he helped his fellow students at the Cokeburg site. Determined to get as much done as possible in the few days they had, Edwards said this mission marked his 14th Habitat build.
“I’ve done winter, spring, fall and global Habitat trips,” Edwards said. “I love it. Each trip is unique.”
Edwards said he preferred knocking down walls and rebuilding framing to sitting on a beach somewhere.
“I enjoy helping the community,” he said. “It’s a great feeling, and the homeowners really appreciate the work.”
Ryan Hunt, a junior and the project leader for the Cokeburg build, said the trip to Pennsylvania was extremely beneficial. In addition to learning leadership skills, Hunt said his second Habitat build helped to prepare him for his major as a construction manager.
“It’s great experience, and I get to help a community,” he said.
Edward Yorty, the construction manager for the Washington County Habitat for Humanity, said the organization has hosted students as part of the Collegiate Challenge for the last 10 years. While the Western Kentucky group was the only group to donate their time in Washington County this spring, Yorty said every bit of help counts. Yorty said the students genuinely want to make a difference and would rather be useful over the break.
“These kids enjoy it,” he said.
And it is perhaps this feeling of “wanting to be useful” that convinced Abigail Connick, a 20-year-old junior at Concordia, that she would rather spend her spring break framing a window or finishing drywall than basking in the Mexican sun.
But why Greene County?
“Well, Pennsylvania is quite different than Nebraska and we found that Greene County is one of the poorest counties in the state,” she said. “We wanted to be useful and what better way to spend spring break than help those who need it.”
The Concordia group, which stayed at the Jefferson Baptist Church, left Sunday. The week before, a group from Boston College worked at a Habitat house in West Waynesburg, and this week, another Collegiate Challenge group from Fordham University will be working on the Jefferson house and one in Crucible.
Although this is Connick’s first Habitat mission trip, she was named team leader.
“We ripped up flooring, pulled off baseboards, cleaned and stripped walls and prepped them to be painted,” she said. “This house definitely needed some loving care.”
Chris Wilson, a sophomore, said this, too, was his first challenge trip, and he likes service and traveling, “so this was just the right thing to do.”
It is not just the students who learn from the experience; the Habitat affiliates benefit as well, and not because they have a pool of free labor.
“Having these kids here is an invigorating experience,” said Keith Davin, executive director of Greene County Habitat. “We operate with a limited number of volunteers, so seeing these students give up their time to do community service helps us refocus.”
Davin agreed with Connick, noting that building houses for people that need them is a great way to spend spring break. “These students are truly making a difference to help others,” Davin said.