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Vermont students spend spring break with children with disabilities
University of Vermont student Jess Wood pushes Challenged Child and Friends student Andy Lewis around a playground Monday. The college students are volunteering at Challenged Child during their spring break this week. - photo by Tom Reed

Instead of going to Cancun, Miami or some other fun-filled vacation spot, a group of students from the University of Vermont have driven down to Northeast Georgia for an "alternative" spring break.

An alternative spring break is when college students forego the traditional trip in lieu of dedicating their week off from school to doing community service.

"I’ve missed out on a lot of community service opportunities on campus, and I thought that this would be a great way to give back, to dedicate an entire week to community service," said Nicole Constantine, a University of Vermont sophomore. "This is the first year that I’ve taken an alternative spring break. A lot of my friends were doing it, so I thought that it would be fun to try something different."

The Vermont students, nine in all, arrived Sunday evening in Hall County and will spend the week volunteering at Challenged Child and Friends.

The trip to Hall County is one of 12 alternative spring break locations for the Vermont students. The excursions are sponsored by the campus’ Alternative Spring Break group, a student-run organization. Since the first trip in 1991, the school has earned more than 50,000 community service hours.

"This is my second year taking a ASB trip, but this is the first year that I was able to lead a trip," said Nick Balfour, who also is a sophomore. "We’ve been working since October to set things up. We had to do everything from interviewing candidates for the trip, to working out transportation and locating a participation site."

Although this is the first time that Challenged Child has welcomed a group of alternative spring breakers from the University of Vermont, school staff say they welcomed the extra hands.

"Someone at the school found our Web site and contacted us to see if we would be interested in being a participation site," said Joy Green, Challenged Child’s volunteer coordinator. "Of course we said ‘Yes.’ We were thrilled that they wanted to come down and volunteer."

In the mornings, the student volunteers will be helping out in the Challenged Child classrooms. In the afternoons, they’ll be doing tasks such as helping to organize the school’s supply rooms, entering data into computer systems and preparing mailings that need to be distributed to the community.

Although the students may not be able to hang out on the beach during spring break like some of their counterparts, they were still soaking up the sun and enjoying the nearly 80-degree temperatures as they worked in the garden Monday afternoon at Challenged Child.

"It felt good to roll down the windows as we were driving down," Balfour said. "We haven’t been able to do that for months (in Vermont)."

In Burlington, where the University of Vermont is located, the weather Monday was 33 degrees and rainy.

Although the students will have their share of menial tasks to complete before making the 32-hour drive back home this weekend, the volunteers say they are happy to have had the opportunity to make a difference in Hall County.

"I switched my major to sports medicine/physical therapy, and I’d like to be able to work with students with disabilities, so this has allowed me to link (my educational interests) with my desire to perform community service," said Jessica Wood, a sophomore volunteer. "I wanted to do something besides going home for spring break and this was a great opportunity. It’s really been a humbling experience."

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