'Sacrifices and service' | Howard University students spend alternative spring break doing service here

Lisa Johnston | lisajohnston@archstl.org

College spring breaks conjure images of beaches, bars and booze ... with brutal hangovers in the mornings.

But a group of Howard University students skipped those "traditional" rites of spring in favor of wholesome, worthwhile activities in their break the week of March 15.

The Howard students spent their "Alternative Spring Break" doing service in the St. Louis community -- specifically, north St. Louis and north St. Louis County. The ecumenical group visited high schools, such as Normandy and Riverview Gardens, and performed beautification and other service projects at Ann Malone Children and Family Service Center and Beyond Housing, among others.

The Archdiocese of St. Louis, St. Charles Lwanga Center and St. Augustine Parish were among the group's hosts in St. Louis. Lwanga Center executive director and St. Nicholas pastor Father Art Cavitt delivered an inspirational reflection at a prayer service for the students March 17 at St. Augustine, which also hosted a dinner and panel discussion based on events in Ferguson. Cavitt also leads the archdiocesan National Black Catholic Congress implementation team.

Based on the Howard conference "Committed to Breathing: The United States Reconstruction Project," the panel discussion addressed the question: What might this mean for our region in light of Ferguson?

The students -- 100 in all --traveled here from Washington, D.C., arriving at 3 a.m. March 15 with departure set for March 20. The trip most definitely wasn't about creature comforts. The students crammed into two buses, slept on a gymnasium floor at Zion Travelers Missouri Baptist Church and showered at nearby Riverview Gardens High.

"Just to be part of the community, connect and build relationships," said Sable Givens, a Howard junior and Parkway Central High School graduate.

"Most alternative spring breaks stay in churches and gyms," said Ashton Ragsdale, a Howard senior and University City High School graduate. "We're not going to put up students in hotels; that's not what this is about. It's about making sacrifices and service."

Givens and Ragsdale served as coordinators for the St. Louis trip, among the university's 10 alternative spring break projects. Howard students also served in West Virginia, Baltimore, Chicago, Detroit, Memphis, New Orleans, Newark and their home base of Washington, D.C., plus Haiti.

This is the group's first time in St. Louis.

"Ashton had talked about doing a St. Louis trip, so when everything happened, we knew it was time to come here," said Givens, a psychology major and human-development minor.

Givens and Ragsdale took part in an alternative spring break last year -- Givens as a participant in Baltimore, and Ragsdale as a coordinator of the D.C. group.

"After D.C., if I'd do this again, it was only going to be in my hometown," said Ragsdale, an economics major and African-American studies minor. "I initially decided I wasn't going to do it again, but that was not the plan after the Ferguson stuff.

"It's almost like divine intervention. It was a perfect fit."

The service projects play a big role in the trip, but the most significant part is the students' high school visits. They provide civic education so "youth understand the world they're coming into and how to make effective change," Givens said. "They don't want these things happening in their communities."

More importantly, the college students mere presence gives the high school youth strong role models and examples of what's possible for them.

"Growing up in St. Louis, I never met anyone from Howard or even anyone from the East Coast, or college students that came to my high school," Ragsdale said. "That's something I really yearned for, especially for someone who looked like me.

"We know how inspirational that can be, and how important this connection is -- not only to change the lives of people we're serving but also the college students we're bringing here, opening their eyes to different communities and people. We definitely want to ingrain this in them so they continue this legacy of service."

Service is nothing new at Howard. Students have taken alternative spring breaks for more than 20 years and it has become a spring tradition.

"Our mission is to serve others," Ragsdale said. "We've been blessed, and when you receive blessings, your obligation is to spread it to other people."

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