Thinking About Spring Break?


Sooner or later, all of our children hit high school. Crayons change to Number 2 pencils, construction paper gives way to computers, and the sweet vacations you took with your youngsters become fond memories. Before you know it, it will be senior year, and creeping into conversations about SATs, college applications, and upcoming graduations will be those two dreaded words: spring break.

   But not every spring break has to be a source of terror about what your child might get up to. There are alternatives to the week-long, parent-free bashes in Cancun and the Bahamas — alternatives that can enlighten your child’s mind and change it for the better.

  Bridges to Community, an Ossining-based organization, considers spring break a time when students can volunteer internationally, participate in hard yet significant work, and come back feeling they’ve accomplished something. And they offer their Alternative Spring Break trips to Nicaragua year-round.

   Laura Elmore, Bridges’ director of communications and public relations, has witnessed first-hand the impact an Alternative Spring Break can have. “Bridges to Community organizes groups of volunteers and sends them to developing countries to do service projects,” she explains. “A huge part of what we do is to expose young people to the Third World. It is a very powerful experience, particularly because they are at an impressionable age.”

   A typical week is spent in a rural Nicaraguan village, where each student is provided with a cot and mosquito netting. At dinner, they eat like Nicaraguans do: “rice and beans at every meal,” Elmore says.  Over the course of several days, they help build a home for a poor family.

   “It’s quite meaningful,” says Elmore. “The great part is that they are living the way that the culture does. They build the house with the family that will be moving in.”

   This year, Bridges to Community will be sending 91 students, mostly from Westchester County, to participate in “construction trips” to different parts of Nicaragua. Sophie Lembeck, a senior at John Jay High School in Cross River, calls her first trip to Nicaragua in February 2004 “a life-changing experience”.

   Lembeck learned about the trip through her synagogue, Temple Shaaray Tefila in Bedford.  “A friend of mine had gone on a trip with her church, and said it was an amazing experience, so I figured I would try it,” she recalls. “I could never have imagined the profound impact it had on my life. That sort of thing can’t be put into words.”

   Lembeck isn’t the only one to come back from a Bridges trip at a loss for words. Byram Hills High School English teacher Duane Smith was introduced to the organization by a former student. Since his first trip in April 2003, he has organized four Alternative Spring Breaks (along with other summer trips and a trip to Kenya) and is also a Bridges to Community board member. On most trips, 15 students, three teachers and two parents venture with him to Nicaragua.

   Smith prides himself on getting the most out of every participant. His goal is to “transform lives,” he says, adding that he aims to have everyone get more then just their fingernails dirty. Students, parents and teachers dig foundations, mix cement, lay blocks, tie steel and possibly paint a tin roof.

   But the real fun for Smith is watching the changes that take place in those who travel with him.

   “We eat breakfast, lunch and dinner together and we always leave room for reflection sessions in the evening,” he says.  “While not every participant can gather his or her thoughts during the experience, it always helps to witness how other individuals react to what they are doing.  There is a lot of shock that occurs ... most of the participants are not used to working in such physically demanding conditions. Also, since the majority of the groups I bring to Nicaragua come from Westchester, the shock of witnessing poverty up close is great.”

   An Alternative Spring Break trip costs $1,075 (which includes everything but airfare). Bridges to Community is happy to hear from any high school student, parent or teacher who would like to organize a trip. For more information:


A Byram Hills High School student and young helper, during an Alternative Spring Break trip.

Photo: Katie Breidenbach