By John Van Winkle
Academy Public Affairs
SANTA FE, N.M. – Cadets became construction workers for a week as part of the Academy’s Alternative Spring Break program.
More than 60 worked with Habitat for Humanity to build homes for needy families recently in Montrose, Colo.; Santa Fe, N.M.; College Station, Texas; Phoenix; and Wichita Falls, Texas. For the Academy, this work with Habitat for Humanity is the Alternative Spring Break portion of the Cadet Service Learning Program, which is managed by the Center for Character Development and funded by the Association of Graduates.
“Alternative Spring Break provides a unique opportunity for cadets to serve others and make a tangible gift to needy families,” said Maj. Eric Ecklund, director of the center’s Cadet Service Learning program and Alternative Spring Break.
Cadets drove from the Academy to their worksites, sometimes meeting up with un-spring break like weather.
A duststorm blanketed them on their way to Montrose, and snowflakes greeted as they arrived to their worksite March 23. They came upon two houses needing interior work in the Mesa Vista subdivision, where the Montrose Habitat for Humanity office has been building homes at for the past six years. Nine cadets spent a week there, while another from Montrose joined in during part of the week bringing the Academy’s volunteer construction contingent there up to 10.
Habitat for Humanity’s program is very structured.
Once potential homeowners meet all of Habitat’s required background and financial checks, they must put in ‘sweat equity’ into their future homes. For single parents, that equates to a minimum of 250 hours volunteer labor on their future home, and for married couples, it means a minimum 500 hours of volunteer labor, as well as the required down payment.
For future homeowner Rachel Vasquez of Montrose, she’s done 700 hours of sweat equity and counting. Once the house is complete, she’ll have a new two-bedroom, two bath, five-star rated home that at least 98.4 percent energy efficient, with a zero-interest mortgage.
This type of Habitat for Humanity assistance centers on the volunteer manual labor of retirees and college students, like cadets taking part during their Alternative Spring Break.
“There are some who can use some manual labor,” said Cadet 3rd Class Hannah McKinney. “I think it’s good for everyone. Everyone could use some manual labor,” she said, as she painted an interior door on Mrs. Vasquez’ home.
When asked about her choice of spring break locations, Cadet McKinney said her choice was obvious.
“I could go to California and hang out at the beach. But not everyone gets vacations like spring break. So I’d almost feel guilty if I did that,” she said. “I went to college before USAFA and I’ve seen what serious partying is like, and I’m not a huge fan of partying.”
Instead, the week was spent prepping, painting and dry-walling. For some, it was a chance to get re-involved with volunteer work from their pasts.
“I used to do Habitat for Humanity stuff back when I was in high school,” said Cadet 2nd Class Chris Horn. “But now I spend so much time on school and spend my Saturdays with the Academy flying team that I don’t have much time left to volunteer. And this is a chance to do just that, meet new people and have fun.
“It’s looking like it will be a decent amount of work, but a lot of fun and very rewarding at the same time,” he added.
It was also a rare opportunity for Cadet Horn to stay far away from his classbooks and homework for several days of non-academic bliss.
Not everyone can set aside academics completely.
For Cadet 3rd Class Kristen Lorch of Cadet Squadron 21, she had a little ‘light reading’ to do during spring break.
“I’ve got a 400-page book to read and do a report on by the following Monday. It’s a Russian novel about the battle of Stalingrad, which will be compared to a German novel on the same subject, and become the final project for her Russian Military History class,” she said. It’s part of her final project for her military history class, but must be juggled with her other five classes.
“In fairness, I’ve had three weeks to do that, and I’ve put it off to work on other classes, so now I’m doing that.”
It’s not all work for the alternative spring break cadets.
They did get the chance to see the local area after the work was done, and ended the week with a camping trip. For the cadets who hit Santa Fe, they started the week with a hiking trip, and then got to work on three houses in Santa Fe.
Their projects were in the Oshara Village subdivision, one the Habitat for Humanity office there has been gradually building for years.
The weather gave cadets a southwestern spring welcome to New Mexico, with winds gusting to 30 miles per hour, sending dust and reckless tumbleweeds flying across the work site to start their work week, and a late-season snow storm blowing through to wrap up the week. Still the weather wasn’t a deterrent for cadets opting to go to New Mexico for spring break, and most cadets going on alternative spring break got their first choice in work locations, like Cadet 4th Class Lauren Fuchs of Cadet Squadron 35.
“I saw there was a site in New Mexico, and that excited me, because I always wanted to go to New Mexico,” said Cadet Fuchs. “Alt Spring Break was a way to spend my time instead of going home and being lazy. I enjoy being home with my friends and family, but after a few days, I’m asking ‘what is there to do?’
So instead of going home to Greensboro, N.C., Cadet Fuchs opted for alternative spring break and the chance to work with others outside of the Academy environment. It also helped get one of her fellow four-degrees on the trip.
“I’d been thinking about doing alt spring break for a while, but when Lauren said she was going, that sold it for me,” said Cadet 4th Class Rachel Reeder of CS-35, one of five CS-35 cadets taking part in alt spring break. “I really like it and it’s a good way to spend spring break.”
The 20-plus cadets performed a variety of interior work on two homes, including painting, drywall and installing the kitchen cabinets. For the third home, cadets started work to build it from the foundation up.
As the cadets formed teams and waded into the work at full speed, Habitat volunteers saw a difference in attitude, approach and productivity they readily attribute to the cadets’ Academy background.
“I’m sure it’s because of their discipline,” said Dennis Larsen, a retiree-turned Habitat volunteer from Arvada, Colo. Larsen, a Korean War Airman, and one of several former bluesuiters volunteering at Habitat locations with cadets, saw the differences between the cadets and typical college students instantly.
“They are much more respectful than other college students. Now, we’ve not had problems with other college students, but the cadets are much more respectful and disciplined. You don’t have to show them the obvious. They jump in and do what needs to be done,” said Larsen.
“Once an instruction is given, it doesn’t have to be given twice,” he said. “They’re not afraid to ask questions, and if they’re unsure of something, then come and find out what the answer is.”
Some students are afraid to ask those problem-solving questions. When that happens, nothing gets done, he added.
The Center for Character Development’s Alternative Spring Break program is now in its ninth year. Alt spring break is only a small part of the total Cadet Service Learning program.
During the 2007-2008 academic year, cadets participated in 43,600 hours of community service at 3,000 different volunteer projects along the Front Range and around the country, as part of the CSL program. Community service and the concept of service learning are part of the Academy’s efforts to offer cadet character development programs which emphasize one of the Academy’s central core values, “Service Before Self.” The Cadet Service Learning program attempts to take this core value from the theoretical concepts of the classroom to actual experiences with the goal of a lifelong internalized volunteer ethic and understanding of the value of service others, particularly in the area of community service.