WEST JEFFERSON-Most college students spend their spring break seeking a reprieve from midterms and a hectic course load before eyeing their quickly approaching final exams.
Others might land a spot in a lounge chair at some faraway sunny beach.
Then you have 500 students from St. Joesph’s University.
Instead of opting for social time, these community first minded scholars shrugged the beach towels and comfy pants for a paint brush and hammer to help their fellow man.
Last week, 24 of those students – originating from SJU’s Appalachian Experience (APEX) community outreach program – gave up their entire spring break to refinish and paint a Habitat for Humanity House on McNeil Hill Road in Jefferson.
The students are a part a growing trend on the Philadelphia, Pa. campus where “Ashe County” is becoming a household name.
Each year, Saint Joseph’s offers their students opportunities to visit and volunteer in various Appalachian communities through APEX.
APEX is a Spring Break immersion program that is committed to serving with and for others while learning about the culture and concerns of the people of the Appalachian region. For over 23 years, SJU has been sending students to the Appalachian Region, according to a press release. This year, over 500 participants will travel to 17 different sites in five states with intentions of maintaining the same mission as the students who have served before them.
McNeil Hill Road and the site of the future fourth house of Ashe County Habitat’s for Humanity were just two of those spots chosen by APEX for the volunteer program.
Despite the demanding and time consuming nature of the work, which is hundreds of miles away from the more friendly confines of home, it doesn’t take much to sell SJU students on the idea of community service in the Appalachians.
Within five hours of posting a sign-up sheet for APEX earlier this year, all 500 spots were reserved by eager and bright-eyed students wanting to make a difference in the lives of complete strangers.
Senior Liz Shomer has faithfully returned on her pilgrimage of community service to the region after seeing the kind of impact it left upon locals and the lasting relationships she has formed.
“I really think the biggest thing is the hospitality,” said Shomer of her decision to return to the region every year. “This is an opportunity to grow relationships, too. The biggest thing we focus on is engaging in dialogue and learning from each other.”
At the end of the day, however, it’s been helping a family in need.
“We are a piece of a greater puzzle and we are happy to be that piece,” she said.
Claudia Plaza Barnils, who joined Shomer for painting duties in Jefferson last week, said she signed up for APEX following gentle encouragement from her friends.
“All my friends said I would be interested in it,” said Barnils. “The program is very well known at the university. I’m an international student (from Spain), so I haven’t had much to do with community service.”
While Habit for Humanity’s efforts are primarily geared at building up walls – in the way of future homes for under privileged and hardworking families – the students enrolled in the APEX program said they were more than willing to break down other more metaphorical barriers in the form of preconceived notions and stereotypes.
Outsiders peering through a disguised veil of impoverished and simple-minded people can often times prevail in the mindset of those not familiar with the Appalachian region.
“I’ve learned that labeling people is not good at all,” said Barnils. “These (stereotypes) are not true. I’m learning it’s not all about fixing or helping, but becoming one.”
As a general statement, Shomer said there are several preconceived notions when traveling into the Appalachian Mountains.
It is for this reason that the group took time to each day to pause for reflections and retrospect in order to dispel some of those myths.
While they learned much about the community they came to help and developed lasting connections, the students also learned a great deal from each other.
In fact, the students didn’t have to look far at all to develop a new connection on the way to North Carolina as most of them were strangers before departing St. Joseph’s.
“The kids heading down here really don’t know each other, but they are able to bond through their service work,” said Coordinator Gerry Tygielski.
Reach Jesse Campbell at 336-846-7164.