Barry Saunders

A different kind of spring break

You know spring break has a sketchy reputation when the hotel switchboard lady warns you against staying at her place.

That’s spring break week, she whispered into the phone. You sure you want to stay here?

I thanked her and reserved a luxury suite at the only other affordable place, the Wing Wang Motel where, instead of a mint on the pillow, you’re more likely to find a half-gnawed pickled pig’s foot under the bed.

That conversation occurred several years ago, but even today, where spring-breaking college kids convene, trepidation often follows and wrecked rooms and punched-through ceilings sometimes remain.

Twelve spring-breaking college students from the University of Missouri descended upon Chatham County last week, and you can guess what they left in their wake: copious amounts of goodwill and scores of people yearning for their return.

The only things wrecked or punched through were preconceptions.

Hannah Ryan and Emma Balkenbush were the site leaders who, through the university’s Alternative Spring Breaks program, led the altruistic sojourn to Camp Royall in Moncure. The week spent working with autistic young adults was, Ryan said, edifying and – get this – “fun. ... We got an opportunity to meet other people we’d have never met.”

Asked in separate interviews how the Mizzou students settled on a site so far away – 19 hours by meandering SUVs – Ryan and Sarah Gage, director of Camp Royall, both mentioned “fate.”

Gage said Friday, “We were working to expand our year-round program,” but had been unable to until now. Having the spring-breakers “has meant a great deal to us. This is the first time we’ve been able to do such a thing in the spring, and it’s only because they volunteered to be here. It was an amazing week.”

Why did they do it?

Jake Hurrell, the football team’s long-snapper and a business management major, said “You could ask all 12 people and you’d get 12 different stories. A lot of people have had either a relative with disabilities or they’ve interacted with people with disabilities and they wanted to help out,” Hurrell said.

“Me, personally, I have almost no experience with anyone with autism, but Camp Royall was an absolutely perfect fit. ... Last year, I did the typical thing – go to the Gulf Shores with a bunch of college friends and do that beach scene.

“It was fun for a little bit, but I realized it was kind of empty. That’s what led me on this path. I felt I could waste my spring break on a beach doing a whole lot of nothing, or I could actually go out and make a difference in someone’s life. It was an easy choice for me to go out and do something meaningful with my week off.”

Wow.

Alternative spring breaks seem to be, in the idiom of the young, a thing. Various universities and groups offer opportunities and suggestions for students who, like the Mizzou 12, seek an alternative to Bacchanalia-ing on the beach. If you’re interesting in creating spring break memories that you can actually remember and want to, the Internet has several options listed under “alternative spring breaks.”

Students from Howard University in Washington, D.C., spent their spring break in Ferguson, Mo., getting to know residents there. A pal of mine was so impressed with the Camp Royall volunteers that he said of his own college-student son: “He doesn’t know where he’s spending his spring break next year, but I do.”

Balkenbush, a junior broadcast journalism major, said she “got hooked on working with people with disabilities last year” when she worked at an adaptive ski program in Colorado. While preparing to leave Moncure Friday, she said, “We had an awesome time. I can’t imagine having a greater spring break.”

Can you imagine their having a more meaningful one?

Saunders: 919-836-2811 or bsaunders@newsobserver.com

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