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Breaking the Mold

By France Griggs Sloat

Jon Gromek spent his spring break in Mexico like many college students. He sampled home-cooked Mexican food, played games with new friends, spent a lot of time in the sun. But this was no vacation. While many of his peers were lounging on the beaches of Cancun, Gromek was living in an orphanage in Agua Prieta, a small town near the Arizona border. It was hot. It was exhausting. But for Gromek, it was heaven.

“It was a life-changing experience,” says Gromek, a junior theology and political science major. “I wanted to do something more with my life, and I realized I can’t get that from drinking a week of my life away in Cancun. Going to Agua Prieta and playing two hours with these kids at the orphanage means more than two hours lying on the beach.”

Gromek is one of 12 Xavier students who took the trip during spring break and one of 144 Xavier students who went on 12 trips to various locales that week. Some traveled as far away as Ukraine, others to Colorado and New York City, but all for the same purpose—to do something meaningful with their lives.

The students were part of a concerted effort at the University known as Alternative Break Club that is growing in popularity and mirroring a national trend.

“Service in general at Xavier has skyrocketed,” says Greg Carpinello, a campus minister and advisor to the Alternative Break Club, “and it just makes sense that an organization like Alternative Break exists because it gives students a chance to travel and to live out the mission of the University—to be men and women for others. Students are just on fire about giving back, learning about issues and trying to look at the bigger questions going on in the world.”

In the five years since the group was formed, the response from students has soared. It began unofficially in 2001 when a group of students went on their own to work with Appalachian communities. It then became an official club that sent 36 students on three trips in 2002 to rehabilitate houses in West Virginia, work at soup kitchens in Baltimore and battered women’s shelters in New York City. It added a summer trip to Brazil in 2003. By 2004, it grew to 10 trips—eight in the spring and two in early summer—for 120 students.

One of the more popular trips is Ukraine, where students work at an orphanage in Kiev. Other trips include working on a Cherokee reservation in Oklahoma and a home for AIDS patients in Birmingham, Ala. Every spring break includes a mystery trip where students don’t learn where they’re going until they get to the airport. Last year it was the Everglades to clean up beaches and work with marine life. This year it was Catalina Island for environmental clean-up. Gromek says so many students are signing up, the club has to add more trips at different times of the year, including possibly over winter break. The big trip this year is to New Orleans, where two groups of students went in May to help in the recovery effort from Hurricane Katrina. It brought the total to nearly 200 students taking 16 trips this year.

For sophomore Maggie Meyer, the Katrina trip was a no-brainer. It included spending two weeks living in a FEMA tent while spending the days tearing down damaged houses. “To be part of something so much bigger than yourself is everything Xavier teaches,” she says. “But you can’t go there and not do some fun stuff.”

Gromek agrees. For his group, fun in the border town was playing Frisbee and soccer with the orphan girls, making tacos and guacamole in their dormitory kitchen and eating the stacks of tortillas made by the orphanage cooks.

“We ate them there and shared them with the kids,” Gromek says. “They didn’t have to make those for us, but they did it out of their kindness and love. They didn’t have much, but what they had, they shared freely with us.”

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