This article is from the archives of the UB Reporter.

Students trade sunshine for service

Published: April 14, 2005

Reporter Contributor

Some UB students skipped the sunshine and volleyball this spring break for a week of service, spirituality and community in Brooklyn and Nashville.

The students participated in Alternative Spring Break (ASB), an annual trip organized by the UB Newman Centers that offers students the opportunity to learn humility and practice social justice on service trips. The trips also provide students with the chance to experience other parts of the country, other cultures and other ways of life.

The trips this year to Brooklyn and Nashville were organized by Gregory Coogan, campus minister at St. Joseph University Parish on Main Street and The Newman Center on South Campus, and Maria Claire, campus minister on North Campus.

Coogan traveled with 13 students to St. John the Baptist parish in the Bedford-Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn. The group worked in soup kitchens, tutored in inner-city schools, taught English and religious education, and worked in a thrift store. The students also experienced a sense of community by living in close quarters and making meals together for almost seven days. Coogan notes that in addition to helping those in need, the students themselves gain a lot from the program, including learning how their service impacts the world and some measure of humility.

"This program ultimately helps to humanize our society and its ills," Coogan says. "Issues of social justice are not only studied and talked about, but experienced during the trip and beyond. In many ways, participants can identify how this experience has changed their lives."

Claire took a group of more than 20 students to Nashville to work with the Catholic Charities Resettlement Program that helps to provide basic needs, employment and education services for refugees. The refugees were from a variety of countries, among them the Sudan, Iran and Cuba.

Students hosted an Easter egg hunt, cleaned out a warehouse full of donated items, and worked in a soup kitchen and on farms. The group stayed at St. Ann's Episcopal Church, and also learned how to live in close quarters and cook for themselves and guests.

Claire says the trip provided "plenty of opportunities for dialogue and casual conversation," as well as time for talking about issues of social justice.

For many of the students, this was their second or third service trip with the Alternative Spring Break. Claire notes the group has grown in the past five years.

"In the first trip I participated in, we had seven students," she says. "The next year we quadrupled to 28. The numbers have risen and we try to stay around 40 participants each year. So in total, about 181 have participated (over the years) and about a third of the 181 are repeaters."

Rachel LoSecco, a junior majoring in mechanical engineering, and Brittany Dolph, a senior majoring in anthropology and psychology, traveled on their third and second trips, respectively. Both served as team leaders on the Nashville trip, helping with planning, fundraising, organizing meetings and holding group discussions. Both learned about the trips through the Newman Center and were curious after hearing feedback from previous participants.

LoSecco says the trips are important for learning and seeing different aspects of life. She says she learned about not only the process for refugees to come to America, but also how to live simply surrounded by many people and how thankful she really should be.

"We can see how the government does or doesn't contribute to these problems (of poverty) and/or the solutions to them," LoSecco says. "By doing that, we can make more informed decisions when it comes to our personal futures and what we do with them. ASB was an opportunity for me to challenge myself."

Dolph also sought a challenge to remove herself from her "comfort zone." She says that even though she's struggled with her faith, belief system and membership within the church over the past few years, ASB has become an important part of her life. Through the combination of service and community, she says she's received overwhelming affirmation of what she believes and how she identifies herself.

"It doesn't hit with full force until you see for yourself the injustices that may people deal with in their lives," Dolph says. "It's so easy to be oblivious, not only to the extent of poverty and injustice in our country and communities, but to the fact that it even exists."

Both students acknowledge the difficulties in breaking out of the cycle of poverty.

"(It's) not because of a lack of desire or effort," Dolph says. "While people are promised a ready supply of opportunity in this country, it is rarely available to those that need it most."

Coogan says the trips would not be possible without the supportive leadership of Fr. Pat Keleher and Fr. Jack Ledwon, Newman Center directors. The centers provide monetary donations and spiritual support. The students work hard to raise money for the annual trips, providing taxi-cab service to the airport or bus station, organizing spring plant sales and "rent-a-student" programs for odd jobs, collecting empty ink cartridges for refunds and approaching businesses in the community for sponsorship. They also are members of Onecause, an Internet fund-raising network in which a percentage of sales from various participating merchants, such as the Gap and Best Buy, to go to the members. The site, which can be found at, includes more than 360 retail merchants.

Over the past few years, the ASB group also has helped the less fortunate in Washington, D.C.; Philadelphia; Laurens, S.C.; Cincinnati, Ohio; Spencer, W.Va.; Camden, N.J.; and Albuquerque, N.M.

More information about ABS can be found at