Lehigh University's CSO SERVE Program offers Lehigh students a variety of volunteer opportunities during spring break every year. One of the trips was in Wheeling, West Virginia, where the group volunteered in a homeless shelter. (Courtesty of Caralyn Roeper)

Students give back on CSO SERVE and alternative spring break trips


Thanks to MTV’s popular show “MTV Spring Break,” college students’ class-free week has been associated with “women,” “drinking,” “beach” and “crazy,” since 2006, according to a study from the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Despite the stereotypes, however, many college students opt for volunteer trips — known as alternative spring breaks — in lieu of vacations.

Lehigh offers volunteer trips through the Community Service Office’s SERVE program, which sends students to various parts of the country to achieve specific charitable goals. Sarah Gelfand, the assistant director of community service, said the CSO prefers the term “SERVE trips” instead of “alternative spring break.”

“We believe there is nothing ‘alternative’ about engaging in service when you can,” Gelfand said. “We find it a worthwhile and meaningful way to spend your time, and we hope that folks are engaging in service when they can.”

Gelfand said she and student coordinators Joey Recupero, ’20,  and Jacob Graham, ’21, planned five SERVE trips, four for spring break and one for winter break. Gelfand said Recupero and Graham did the majority of the planning, including selecting leaders for each trip, training the leaders and coordinating other trip logistics.

More than 1,000 students and 30 advisers have attended the student-run trips, which date back to the spring of 1995. Eight participants, a student site-leader and a faculty adviser participate in each trip.

Gelfand said she hopes these attendees attain skills to become more active citizens.

“I hope students who attend SERVE learn something new, maybe make a new friend or two, and I hope that whatever they’ve learned on their trip, they bring back to their community,” she said.

Caralyn Roeper, ’21, attended a SERVE trip to Wheeling, West Virginia. She and the rest of her group lived and volunteered in a homeless shelter for a week. Roeper said the team’s main goal was to address the lack of fresh produce available to homeless people.

“There are a lot of health problems related to (the homeless) not being able to get food that isn’t processed,” she said. “They only have access to convenience stores, so even if they can get produce, it’s ridiculously expensive. Most of the people struggle with obesity, diabetes and heart disease because of their lack of access to nutritional food.”

Roeper plans to go into social work and saw her participation in a SERVE trip as a step toward that goal. She said she was amazed by the generosity of both the homeless people and the homeless shelter employees.

“One of the guys gave me his rosary beads, just trying to be nice,” Roeper said. “It just shows that a lot of people are so concerned with material objects, and these people have nothing and they are still really good people down to the core.”

Roeper said she noticed some similarities between Wheeling and Bethlehem, as both towns were severely impacted by the collapse of the steel industry. She said she hopes Lehigh students become more aware of the poverty in Bethlehem.

Like Roeper, Sara Kujalowicz, ’20, attended a service trip over spring break in Atlanta with Deloitte and United Way. Kujalowicz was a part of a team at an Easterseals child development center that encouraged STEM learning for preschoolers through engaging hands-on activities.

In addition to teaching, Kujalowicz had the opportunity to network with Deloitte and United Way employees, visit the Georgia Aquarium and volunteer to help homeless people.

Kujalowicz said alternative spring breaks are not for everyone, but they provide a tangible impact to a community in need.

“It takes a certain individual that has a passion for service to take on an alternative spring break program, and it’s perfectly fine if people want to relax or go on vacation,” Kujalowicz said. “But if you do have that passion for service, they are such a great alternative to get involved and make an impact on a community, no matter where it is.”

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