Students Break Out

Looking for more out of your spring breaks than suntans and late night parties? These young people experienced adventure, camaraderie, and the satisfaction of making a difference--plus a few surprises
When Tom Barrington landed in Kathmandu during his spring semester last year, he did not expect to lead a rescue team on the world's highest mountain two weeks later.
Barrington, a senior outdoor adventure education student at Northland College in Ashland, Wisconsin, had joined nine other students, seven alumni, and three professors on a four-week trip to the base camp of Mount Everest. Through Porters Progress (, a three-year-old non-profit organization started by American climber-turned-porter Ben Ayers, they taught first aid to porters and cleaned up garbage. Porters Progress tackles issues of workplace exploitation through first aid training, English classes, cottage industry development, and other empowerment programs.
Hiking at elevations above 17,000 feet, often carrying loads that exceed 100 pounds, indigenous Nepalese porters risk altitude sickness, exhaustion, hypothermia, and other injuries and illnesses.

“Most of the porters are from the lowlands,” says Barrington. “They are farmers who seek work in the mountains because they want to make more money.” Their employers rarely take the time to train them on how to take care of the cuts and injuries they could sustain in the unfamiliar terrain, Barrington said.

The Northland group, all of whom were certified to teach wilderness first aid, helped 66 porters learn how to splint broken arms, clean wounds, carry out rescues, and recognize illnesses.

Their lessons were put to immediate use when one porter suffered a stroke during the trek. When the company that employed the porters refused to send a helicopter for his evacuation, the entire group used the techniques that they learned in first aid training to carry the porter seven miles to a town where he could be airlifted to a hospital.

“The feeling that you get from volunteering and having a positive impact on someone's life is far more fulfilling than what you would experience on a normal vacation,” says Barrington.

The trip also had a profound impact on Cindy Sakry, another Northland student. “They were the best students you could ever imagine,” she says of the porters. While her peers returned to the States, she traveled to Kathmandu to create an English phrase book for Porters Progress.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, Barrington and Sakry are part of a large group of young people who are stepping up to make a difference. Department statistics say 24 percent of men and women between the ages of 16 and 24 spent, on average, 40 hours volunteering last year, up 2 percent from 2002.

Thousands of students on alternative spring break trips have cleared trails, picked up garbage, read to children, visited nursing homes, built bridges, and developed lasting friendships all over the world.

A wolf's life
At Colorado College in Colorado Springs, a unique “block” scheduling system provides students with multiple short breaks throughout the year. Many students spend these breaks volunteering through a student-run program called “Breakout.” Sophomore Chrissie Long recently led an annual Breakout trip to Mission: Wolf (, a rehabilitation center in the remote Wet Mountains of southern Colorado. The center provides a refuge for 40 grey wolves and wolf-dog cross-breeds that were born into captivity.

Kent Weber, who founded Mission: Wolf in 1988, has developed an on-site education facility and traveling education program, hoping his work will encourage wolf-recovery efforts. This past February, Colorado College students spent four days constructing fences, compiling sponsor packets for Mission: Wolf supporters, and helping prepare and deliver meals for the wolves.

“Kent [Weber] told us that Mission: Wolf is as much a refuge for people as it is for wolves,” Long says. “I found that to be true. To get off of campus for a few days to do community service work is as valuable to me as it is for those we serve.”

The camaraderie shared between the volunteers, staff, and canine residents at Mission: Wolf allowed the students to return to class with a greater appreciation for wolves and a renewed enthusiasm for community service.

This spring, Northland and Colorado College students joined approximately 11,000 students from the United States, Canada, and Japan who participated in Habitat for Humanity's Collegiate Challenge. Together, they raised almost $1 million and spent their spring breaks working. For many students, trips like these play a significant role in shaping their lives.

“When it comes to living well, I focus on three things,” Barrington says. “Academics gives you a base of knowledge and skills to build on. Service teaches you the importance of service and community. And personal growth—through traveling, adventure, cultural experiences—helps you decide what you want to strive for.”

Resources for Alternative Breaks
Break Away: the Alternative Break Connection provides training and information about alternative break programs for students and citizen groups., 850/644-0986

Habitat for Humanity connects student and community groups with low-income families that need manual labor to build or rehabilitate simple homes., 715/392-2118

The National Service Learning Clearinghouse supports students and community groups in developing service-learning trips. Provides discussion guides, sample curricula, and a book-lending library., 866/245-7378

Becky Brun and Brian Edstrom were interns at YES! magazine when they wrote this article.
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