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Tuesday, January 25, 2022

UF students use Spring Break as opportunity to help others

Laying in the sand with a Corona in hand is the essence of Spring Break for some students.

Most keep the anticipated week of freedom to themselves, but some students travel nationally and abroad to address social issues through community service.

Gloria Tavera painted an HIV awareness mural with children in Belize.

Nina Dawson built stoves for Mayan families in Guatemala.

Alex Handfinger served meals at an Atlanta homeless shelter.

Florida Alternative Breaks, a UF organization, sent Tavera, Dawson, Handfinger and other students on trips to perform community service projects that tackle issues such as HIV and homelessness.

Tavera, a third-year neurobiology and political science student, was the site leader for the Belize-bound group.

She said Belize has the highest rate of HIV infection in Central America, creating a need for raising prevention and treatment awareness. There were an estimated 3,600 people living with HIV or AIDS in Belize in 2003, according to the CIA World Factbook.

Jamie Runyons, a UF sophomore, was one of the participants who worked alongside Tavera passing out condoms and painting an awareness mural at a local elementary school.

"It's amazing to think that we could help save lives through the education, part of what we have done by just putting a mural on a wall," Runyons said.

But even San Ignacio locals were puzzled by the college students' choice to give up their Spring Break to work on projects like informing Catholic schools about the importance of teaching HIV prevention, Tavera said.

Tavera and Runyon agreed that while the trip was challenging, the rewards were much greater than anything they could get lying on a beach in Cancun.

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"As a Florida Alternative Breaks participant or site leader, you get to think outside of the box and outside of your world, which makes you a better person," Tavera said.

While their seven days of work kept them busy, participants did get a free day, which they spent touring Mayan ruins, spelunking in area caves and hiking through misty rainforests.

Across the border in Guatemala, another group was busy assembling stoves for families in a Mayan community.

Jeremy Grossman, third-year English student and Guatemala trip site leader, was struck by the respiratory problems some Mayans face due to the effects of cooking fires used in absence of a stove.

Interacting with the locals was Dawson's favorite part of the trip. Her most memorable experience was teaching a group of Mayan children how to play "duck, duck, goose."

As they drove away from the Mayan village, tears filled Dawson's eyes when she saw the children giggling as they chased each other.

Being exposed to poverty in an underdeveloped country for the first time was the biggest eye-opener for Dawson.

"It definitely made me realize how American I am," Dawson said.

"Seeing it with your own eyes was like a slap in the face, because we're so spoiled here."

However, it didn't take an international trip for some participants to get a glimpse at poverty.

Under the direction of site leader Handfinger, a group of 14 traveled to Atlanta to renovate buildings and serve meals at homeless shelters.

Besides getting satisfaction out of helping those in need, Handfinger, who spent last Spring Break in New Orleans rebuilding communities destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, said he enjoys the trips because he returns to UF with new friends.

"Obviously, just sharing these powerful experiences with all of these people, there's no way you won't get close to them," he said.

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