For Weekly SurgeMarch 20, 2013 

Myrtle Beach’s abundance of dance-friendly nightclubs and miles of white sand are a popular destination for a college student’s spring break. But while other students are making plans for the traditional wild, crazy spring break, Nate Braman from Vanderbilt University decided to make some alternative plans for his.

Last year Braman didn’t feel like he accomplished anything during spring break, so he decided to try something new this year. The biomedical engineering major volunteered to spend his break renovating a house with Habitat for Humanity of Horry County, along with 36 other college students. He said he enjoys doing community service because it’s a good opportunity - and you meet new people.

“This is more meaningful than going to the beach and remembering maybe half of it,” said Braman.

And Braman isn’t alone. Although spring break is not traditionally shown in a progressive light, some students are converting the image of a wild, crazy party into a positive impact for the community.

A tradition to get trashed

The media plays a huge role in representing spring break and Myrtle Beach. Coed Magazine ranked Myrtle Beach No. 4 on its Top 15 Trashiest Spring Break Destinations list for 2013, citing the abundance of booze, beach, bars, wet T-shirt contests and strip clubs. However, it also states that three things only define Myrtle Beach: the beach, Broadway at the Beach and strip clubs. The top spot has been held by Las Vegas, followed by No. 2, South Padre Island, Texas and No. 3, Daytona Beach, Fla. Myrtle Beach was No. 5 last year and apparently, bumped Key West down the list.

Myrtle Beach’s national visibility with TV shows such as “ Eastbound and Down” and “ Welcome to Myrtle Manor” doesn’t quite clean up its reputation either. Other shows, such as “ Greek,” have featured Myrtle Beach as the destination for spring break for its characters, even though it was filmed on a West Coast beach that looked nothing like our area.

Add to that the release this week of the movie “Spring Breakers” featuring former wholesome teen stars Selena Gomez, Ashley Benson, and Vanessa Hudgens in a big screen portrayal of this seasonal vacation. The movie has all the dirty you can handle, from alcohol, clubbing, and sex, to drugs, jail and even a robbery.

Admittedly, the majority of students’ spring break experiences never go to the extremes which make it in the media and Hollywood’s portrayals. But as the alternatives become more abundant, the traditional meaning of spring break is changing completely. A growing number of students are coming to the Grand Strand with different plans for spending their week with more noble intentions.

Wild and crazy is what we know of Spring Break. Gallons of alcohol and excessive partying are how Spring Break is characterized in movies and TV shows. And all of the alcohol leads to questionable decisions.

Earlier this month, Bethany Reese, 21, came to North Myrtle Beach from Harrisburg, Va., with her friends for spring break. She went missing for a few hours and the media sent out alerts to find her. Luckily, she was found with no harm. But that’s not always the case. In 2009, Brittanee Drexel of Rochester, N.Y. went missing when she came to Myrtle Beach on spring break. Her story has gained national attention and the search efforts haven’t ceased because she is still missing.

North Myrtle Beach officials say that incidents involving spring breakers range from theft to public intoxication. The city has formed a special team partnering with Horry CAST (Community Action for a Safer Tomorrow) to specifically address potential issues with visitors to the area for spring break.

But a growing number of students are making different plans on how to spend their breaks with more philanthropic intentions.

Some traditions are meant to be altered

Not every college student spends his or her spring vacation in self-indulgent fashion. Many come to the “Dirty Myrtle” to help clean it up and do service projects. The term alternative spring break was coined in the 1980s as a counter to traditional spring break trips. These alternative trips tend to focus on helping foster social issues and causes, such as the environment, poverty, and education.

“Volunteering over spring break is not what many college students picture their spring break will consist of,” said Courtney Elliton, student coordinator of Students Taking Active Responsibility (STAR) at Coastal Carolina University.

Students may become motivated to participate in alternative spring breaks for a variety of reasons. Not only do they become active in the community, but also some may find an interest in new experiences and a desire to meet new people. Alternative spring breaks have tremendous leadership opportunities through service-learning programs and even a chance to gain college credits. Of course, there is always the resume-building opportunity and experiences to help towards a future career.

Habitat’s Collegiate Challenges

As a part of Habitat for Humanity International’s Collegiate Challenge, 36 students from Vanderbilt University, Eastern Kentucky University and Alfred State College in New York spent their spring break (wrapping up on Saturday), volunteering to help renovate homes with Habitat for Humanity of Horry County. Braman and his Vanderbilt team worked to renovate an original Habitat house built in 1996. That home is located off Mr. Joe White Avenue in Myrtle Beach and needed to be renovated for a new family to move into. The three-bedroom, one-bath home was completely gutted, including taking out the entire kitchen and bathroom.

During the first week of the Collegiate Challenge, which started March 4, the Vanderbilt students were focused on interior work, such as flooring and painting. Most of the doors had to be replaced as well as cabinetry and appliances. The few things salvaged included a few doors and some trim work.

Jessica Moore is another student who volunteered from Vanderbilt and is a political science and Latin American studies major from New York City. She participated in a Habitat build last year in New Orleans and in Myrtle Beach this year. She said she learns something new each time about construction – last year she was mostly nailing siding outside and this year she’s doing interior work.

“There are always opportunities to go away with friends, but this time I brought my friends with me,” said Moore, who spent most of the day scraping tiles off the bathroom floor. “It may seem like an underrated job, but it’s worth it.”

But for others, the experience of volunteering during spring break offers opportunities to meet new people.

“I was involved with Habitat in high school and my church. This is my first experience with a college group and it’s been a good one,” Braman said. “I didn’t even know anyone else in this group before, but we really got to know each other during our nine hour drive to Myrtle.”

Regardless of why they sign up, students make an impact where they choose to serve. According to Executive Director Gail Olive, Habitat for Humanity of Horry County has hosted the Collegiate Challenge since before 2000. Some years the organization has had four-to-five weeks of college students coming to the area to volunteer. This year, it’s three weeks dedicated to the program. Working through Habitat International, college students are reached and recruited through national promotions. In 2012, Habitat reported that 774 collegiate teams served for a total of more than 12,000 students.

“These students giving their time are incredibly generous and it’s a concentrated amount of work,” said Olive. “We also have local volunteers that are generous with their time too in helping these college students at the sites.”

Local business partners pitch in, too, including restaurants such as T-BONZ, Gordon Biersch Brewery Restaurant and Mellow Mushroom, which donated meals for the students and volunteers.

“We couldn’t do it without their help,” said Olive.

A typical Habitat home may cost in the neighborhood of $15,000 and this can only be accomplished with donations of time and money. She is hoping that more businesses and individuals will step up to help because it makes a significant difference in getting families into homes.

“Our board is really committed to increasing the number of houses for eligible families in our area,” she said.

Reinventing a Venue

But Habitat for Humanity isn’t the only local organization offering labor-intensive work with a positive renovation to college students on spring break. Fifteen students from UNC-Pembroke spent their spring break helping to renovate the Rivoli Theatre in Myrtle Beach into an entertainment venue for Ground Zero, a non-profit organization in Myrtle Beach that seeks to provide a safe and positive place for teenagers to visit and stay out of trouble.

The students, also a part of the Berea Campus Outreach ministry at Berea Baptist Church in Lumberton, N.C., worked on sheetrock, framing walls and generally fixing up the venue March 11-16. For the past four years, the campus ministry has participated in a mission project during spring break. Last year, they helped open a kid’s summer camp in Virginia and other times they volunteered at homeless shelters.

“A lot of students get caught up in the mentality that college life is more about parties, so it less prepares you for life,” said Hector Miray, assistant pastor of the church. “When you take the time to serve others, work hard and put effort into something, it will help prepare you for life after college. It’s the effort you put into things that help you invest in your future.”

Miray asked the students if they would rather be sitting at home playing Xbox or getting drunk or spend a week to change lives forever. He said he seeks to offer the last option and the students are more than willing to forego the typical spring break to help the community and a cause. The church group comes to Myrtle Beach often during the summer, too, to do community service.

“By doing something like feeding the homeless, it changes your mindset about the beach. It wasn’t just about parties and shopping, there was more to the area,” said Miray.

The renovation of the Rivoli Theatre has been a big project for Ground Zero having already had more than 50,000 volunteer man-hours since the project started in February 2012.

“We’ve come a long way in a short amount of time,” said Scott Payseur, executive director for Ground Zero, who also founded the organization along with his wife, Kimberly Payseur, in 1998.

“The venue is really cool and unique for the Myrtle Beach area,” said Payseur about the renovations of the theater. Once completed this fall, the venue will be targeted towards teenagers as an uplifting place for music, events and entertainment, including a coffee bar. “Things will change from generation to generation, but there is something constant when you are in your teen years; you want to simply hang out with other teens,” said Payseur. “This venue will give them that place, it removes the elements that could lead them to a decision they may regret the rest of their life. It may be that whatever happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, but the emotional repercussions of what happened stays with you. It only takes one decision to affect the rest of your life.”

Breaking tradition and helping others

Branam and Moore are carrying forward a tradition that began on their campus more than 20 years ago. In 1991, two college students at Vanderbilt organized a group, Break Away: the Alternative Break Connection, to provide resources and support for the development of quality alternative spring breaks through intensive service-learning programs. Break Away, now headquartered in Atlanta, has a network of more than 100 chapter schools, more than 400 nonprofit partners, and hundreds of individual members worldwide.

“One part of the alternative break experience is to act as a catalyst for local action,” says the Break Away Web site. “Breakers often returned to their college campuses to create a campus organization related to the social issue, have a deeper understanding and commitment to an academic path. They feel empowered by the identities of ‘alternative breaker’ and ‘active citizen’.”

Many students who participate in an alternative break experience consider it a life-changing event and the national alternative break movement carries through many colleges and universities. In South Carolina, departments at several universities support the system of alternative spring break for their students. The University of South Carolina is a member of Break Away and offers alternative spring break opportunities, including a trip to New Jersey to help with Hurricane Sandy relief efforts. The Center for Civic Engagement at the College of Charleston sponsors alternative break for its students with opportunities to help the homeless in Mississippi, learn about environmental sustainability in Asheville, N.C. or travel to the Dominican Republic or Guatemala to earn college credits. The Office of Student Activities and Leadership at Coastal Carolina University offers alternative break programs for winter and spring breaks.

“While most students take this break to travel south to white sand beaches or travel home to visit family, our group is giving up their break to help better the life of someone in need,” said CCU’s Elliton. During spring break, Elliton accompanied 11 other Coastal students and two advisors to help build a house in Washington, Pa. with Habitat for Humanity.

“The students going on the trip have a passion for giving back to the community in need and we are all excited to be able to witness the outcome of our hard work,” she said.

Pushkala Raman, a professor at Florida State University, conducted an impact analysis in 2001 in conjunction with Break Away. They found that there is significant evidence to support the view that alternative breaks are “indeed contributing to the creative of active citizens. Also, participants show stronger intentions of voting and are inclined to increase the amount of time they dedicate to serve the community.” An active citizen, according to the philosophy of Break Away, is someone who believes the community becomes a priority in values and life choices as opposed to a volunteer, someone who is well-intentioned but not well-educated about social issues.

Break abroad

There are options for students who want to learn or earn credit during their break, too. Students from CCU and other universities around the country also spend their breaks traveling abroad A group from CCU just returned from London where they were able to take advantage of the cultural and historical highlights of the city. As a part of courses in politics and literature, students visited sites such as the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre and the Tower of London. They also enjoyed tours of neighborhoods, theater performances and a trip to Oxford. The program at CCU is limited to students who are enrolled in particular Politics or Literature courses where the trip is used as part of the teaching and students can earn college credit towards graduation. The cost of the London trip was $2,495 and included lodging, some meals, international air and local transportation, field trips and the trip insurance. Other short-term study abroad trips cost between $1,050 and $5,265, depending on the destination and tour details.

But for other students, CCU and other universities offer regular short-term study abroad opportunities throughout the year, including trips to Thailand, Ecuador, Costa Rica, Jamaica and Italy. These opportunities not only provide an international experience, but students gain college credits towards graduation. These courses typically include a few hours of credit for the study abroad program.

Terrance Parson, a communications major at CCU, took advantage of one such the opportunity when he visited Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands last May and earned six credits for college.

“The opportunity to go to the Galapagos Islands was a once in a lifetime experience to see where Charles Darwin discovered the theory of evolution,” he said.

During the trip he also toured ruins, museums, churches, multiple cities and studied at la Universidad de Cuena.

“I got the chance to be immersed in a foreign culture and gain valuable knowledge about life,” he said. “I’m an advocate for study abroad programs, they give all students the ability to see the world through international academic enrichment.”

For more about alternative spring breaks and the mentioned organizations:

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