On the last day of his spring break, University of New Haven senior Isaak Kifle headed for the keys – not the Florida Keys favored by some in the college crowd, but an actual pile of door keys.
The keys belonged to apartments managed by New Haven’s Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services, an organization that helps people from other countries – often those ravaged by conflict – resettle in the area.
Kifle, of Lynn, Mass., and four other UNH students had volunteered at IRIS as part of the University of New Haven’s Alternative Spring Break program, and on their final day they decided to do something about the mass of keys.
“We spent the entire morning reorganizing them, alphabetizing them and getting rid of the ones that were no good,” said Kifle, a psychology major. When finished, the students showed the new arrangement to the housing manager.
“She was so impressed that she brought in the executive director,” he said. “They told us it would save them money – and it looked good.”
The University’s Alternative Spring Break program is designed to give students a chance to give back to the West Haven and New Haven communities. This year, the 16-year-old program attracted 33 students who were split into teams and assigned to one of six locations.
In addition to IRIS, they volunteered at New Haven Reads, the West Haven Child Development Center, and Habitat for Humanity of Greater New Haven, New Haven Home Recovery and the Connecticut Food Bank. The program is coordinated by the University’s Community Service Office and Marty O’Connor, an associate professor of fire science and campus chaplain.
“Our students’ contributions to these programs have touched many lives,” said Rebecca Johnson, associate vice president for student affairs and dean of students. “Their experiences are examples of the collaborative, experiential and discovery-based learning that is central to the education we provide at the University of New Haven.”
Ariel Pierce ‘15, of Bronx, N.Y., who is majoring in history and elementary education, said she could have gone to Atlantic City or California over spring break. Instead, she decided to do something worthwhile with her time by volunteering at New Haven Reads, which seeks to increase literacy among underserved children and operates a free community book bank. Pierce tutored children and helped sort books.
It wasn’t Pierce’s first time at New Haven Reads. She worked there last summer as part of the University’s President’s Public Service Fellowship program. She said she had wanted to go back ever since.
“You realize being there that a lot of children don’t get all the attention they need in school,” she said. “Teachers can’t do it all.”
Trevor McDewell ’15, of Goshen, N.Y., helped renovate a house through Habitat for Humanity. The forensic science major did a variety of jobs – painting inside and outside the house, installing a second toilet and cleaning the basement.
He said that on the first two days he was there, a homeowner who had had a previous house of his built through Habitat for Humanity came by the work site to pitch in.
“It was nice to see that the people being helped were now doing the helping,” he said.
Alternative Spring Break helped him to grow as a person, said McDewell, It also gave him an opportunity to make new friends with fellow UNH students.
“It was an amazing experience,” he said. “I got along with everybody.”
Kifle echoed McDewell’s sentiment. “I had a chance to work with a great team,” he said.
Both said they would recommend the experience to other students. “We take so many things for granted,” said Kifle. “But for so many other people, it’s such a struggle. Helping them is personally fulfilling.”
This story, by UNH Today Contributing Writer Brandon T. Bisceglia ’14, originally appeared in UNH Today in March 2014.