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Students dedicate fall break to service in Appalachia

Mel Flanagan | Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Some Notre Dame students traveled to the mountains for fall break, but they dedicated their week to service rather than vacation time.

These students were among over 250 participants in the semi-annual Appalachia seminar sponsored by the Center for Social Concerns (CSC).

Cynthia Toms-Smedley, director of educational immersions at the CSC, said the seminar sends students to several sites across the Appalachia region to serve local communities. The program draws more students than any other CSC program, she said.

“I think there’s a mix between the service aspect and getting to know community members in Appalachia, as well as an opportunity to have fun while doing service,” she said. “It’s an opportunity to learn about some of the challenges in Appalachia and to exercise our opportunity to serve people.”

The CSC reviewed a record number of 272 applications for the fall trip, Smedley said. The seminar also sends students to the region over spring break.

After students travel to Appalachia once, Smedley said many continue to volunteer with the program.

“There are a lot of repeat students who are there for the third and fourth time,” she said. “They like to reconnect with the community they have served in the past.”

Sophomore Bobby Alvarez spent his week at the Community Development Outreach Ministries (CDOM) in St. Albans, W. Va., and said he plans to return there in the future.

“I want to go again, for the friendships I made, but also because the site I was working at was really an amazing site,” Alvarez said. “The people I worked with there were great.”

At CDOM, Alvarez and 18 other Notre Dame students spent the mornings painting the community center. After lunch, the volunteers helped local children with their homework and played with them outside until dark.

“A lot of the kids came from single parents or families involved with drugs and a lot have families that don’t really care about them,” Alvarez said. “The time at the community center and their time with us is a very special time for both them and us.”

Alvarez said students who volunteer at CDOM frequently return because of the unique bonds they form with the children.

Sophomore Colleen Duffy spent the week at the Hurley Community Development Center in Hurley, Va.

Duffy said she applied to Appalachia to experience the cultural differences between that region and other parts of the country.

“I wanted to do something more meaningful with my fall break than to go home and sit by myself,” she said. “I wanted to do something different.”

During her first few days, Duffy said she built a porch and ramp on a trailer for a woman who was disabled in a car accident.

“The woman was in rehab and was going to return soon, but she couldn’t get into her home,” she said.

Duffy also worked at a local food bank with some of the 21 other volunteers who also traveled to Hurley. She said enjoyed meeting not only other Notre Dame students but also the community members.

“Everyone from the community would just stop by the center and stop in to tell stories, and we’d always be there,” Duffy said. “By the end of the week, I felt like they were my family, and I wish I could go back.”

Smedley said the seminar sends students to approximately 20 Appalachia sites, and each offers a different experience.

“You can choose a site where you can get involved in education or in trail cleanup or work with people looking at sustainable agriculture,” Smedley said.

Many of the sites have been part of the Appalachia program for decades, and Smedley said each must meet certain criteria to ensure that the volunteers can produce the maximum benefits.

“For the centers, it’s an opportunity for students to be useful to the community and not to be a drain on their resources and capacity, but to serve in a way that is helpful,” she said. “And for our students, our hope is that they have an opportunity to get to know the community on a personal level.”