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Challenged Child & Friends gets help for the week from Vermont students
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Shannon Smith hops onto first base in a game of T-ball on Wednesday at Challenged Child and Friends in Gainesville. - photo by NAT GURLEY

The high in Burlington, Vt., today is expected to be around 20.

That makes today’s expected high in Gainesville of 46 practically spring-break weather for a group of University of Vermont students. In fact, it is their spring break.

“It’s a really great way to spend your spring break, doing something productive and helping other people,” college student Colleen Whitcomb said. “It’s really great to be able to help a new community. You create really good friendships.”

The university has partnered with Hall County’s Challenged Child & Friends for a number of years through an Alternative Spring Break program, which partners student volunteers with nonprofit organizations across the country.

Challenged Child & Friends is open to all children, but is especially welcoming to children with special needs or developmental disabilities from 6 weeks to 6 years, offering educational programs alongside on-site speech, physical therapy and occupational therapy services.

The words “spring break” may conjure images of beaches and parties, but the eight student volunteers say they wouldn’t be anywhere else for their time off.

“Everyone is really welcoming and that’s a lot of fun,” volunteer Shannon Smith said. Smith and Whitcomb are co-leaders for the trip. “The accents are fun, especially with all the little kids. When you have a 3- or 4-year-old with that deep Southern accent, that is really adorable.”

The volunteers are spending their time doing everything from helping with the students to odds and ends around the school building.

“I’m in a room with all 2-year-olds,” Whitcomb said. “We help them in their circle time and feed them snacks, and help with lunch and nap time. Tuesday, we helped organize the bookshelves and the toy shelves in the teacher resource room.”

It hasn’t been all work and no play for the college students, though.

“We checked out the downtown Gainesville yesterday, and checked out some of the cute shops,” Whitcomb said. “It’s a really cool area with the square. And then we went and looked at the lake, which is really pretty.”

They also have plans to go to Athens and Atlanta.

“We want to check out the Ferris wheel,” Whitcomb said, referring to SkyView Atlanta in Centennial Park.

Along with enjoying the Southern accents and sightseeing, they’re also getting a chance to taste their way through the region, with trips to Loretta’s Country Kitchen, Mellow Mushroom and Chick-fil-A.

Home base for the week is First Baptist Church in Gainesville, where they sleep in the Family Life Center.

Whitcomb and Smith, along with the other six student volunteers, arrived Sunday in time to help with Challenged Child’s annual 5-kilometer race. They leave Friday, embarking on a two-day road trip that will include Dahlonega and the beginning of the Appalachian Trail as their final Georgia must-see destinations.

“Everyone has been so nice and welcoming,” Whitcomb said. “And it’s so fun to work with the children.”