They missed their turn off Highway 441 and had to backtrack, but once they reached their destination there was no turning around again: Anthony House, a rehab center for homeless people located on the edge of rural Zellwood, was counting on their help, and the 11 University of Florida students who climbed out of their dusty van this past Saturday wearing shorts, T-shirts and wide smiles had opted out of the typical spring break bacchanalia to give it.
College kids descend on the Sunshine State during March and April in numbers large enough to float certain tourist-driven economies through to the summer. It's mostly a migration of hot bods and beer, its participants given to beach bumming and balcony jumping. For those from cooler climes, Florida is where the fun is, and they show up after long drives eager to sink themselves in a sea of excess during their one week off.
Yet in recent years a number of them have turned their backs on that tradition to enroll in something called "alternative spring break." According to Break Away, an eight-year-old, Nashville-based national resource agency for the movement, 15,000 students from about 350 schools will forego temporary tans this year in favor of community service. The tasks they sign up for -- sometimes without even knowing their destination -- include building wilderness trails; renovating low-income housing; assisting teachers in poor schools; working with underprivileged kids to forge their self-esteem; assisting in low-income clinics; and teaching teens about their ethnic culture in an effort to curb gang violence and nurture skills that can expand their options.
At Anthony House, a 10-year-old nonprofit that has worked with the program since 1994, students have added murals, rebuilt storage pantries and taken on other projects that the small staff could not afford to do on its own, says executive director Herb Aguirresaenz.
But just as important, they learn about homelessness and the people who wind up that way even as the experience teaches them something about themselves.
"I just thought that most people were sort of like drifters, going from town to town, shelter to shelter," says Doug Valdes, a sophomore from the University of North Florida, recalling his initial impressions. "If there was any way they could have done it, they didn't have the desire to move up."
His week at Anthony House turned his head around. "They're just people too," he says now. "They have the same wants. I could see parts of myself in those people."
The interaction is intentional, says Aguirresaenz, and as much a part of the program as improvements requiring bricks and mortar. "Sometimes it's less hands-on and more just listening," agrees Rachel Tallman, director of the Break Away program that helped steer the students from seven colleges who will be living, working and eating at Anthony House in rotation this month.
Marty, a 43-year-old guest at Anthony House -- whose innovative program offers extended stays with courses in money management, anger management, life skills, parenting skills and obtaining a GED -- offers further evidence of the effort's payoff. The day before the University of Florida students arrived, he'd applied for and been offered four jobs after a five-week stay that had helped him through a fog of alcohol and depression. That night he'd gotten drunk again; the next afternoon, his progress thwarted, he was desperate to be welcomed back, a decision that would not be forthcoming for several days. Even so, his conversations with students from the week before, he says, had offered him a "kind of therapy."
"The mistakes you make in your life don't really hit home until they come out of your mouth," he says. "But, on the other hand, if they take anything from here that not only I said but anybody said, it'll make a difference."
With the energetic assistance from kids who believe they can make a difference, Anthony House is hoping for the same kind of positive results among those it serves. "People say, ‘How are people going to find Anthony House when they don't even know where Zellwood is?'" says Aguirresaenz. "I always say that one day people will know where to find Zellwood because that's where Anthony House is."
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