Nineteen college students raise money for expenses, take rudimentary lessons in building construction, and drive to Kentucky in a rented van.
A week earlier, they had been mere campus acquaintances. In Chavies, Ky., they become a cohesive crew - digging a drainage ditch, shoring up a sagging house, and cleaning, sanitizing, and painting another.
Why spend spring break working with the Appalachia Service Project? What was in it for these students? Besides the deep gratification they experienced from being able to help families in need, they formed lasting friendships - and had a blast.
This group of students is just one example of the national trend, a trend that will be reflected and publicized through the Presidents' Summit for America's Future, held in Philadelphia April 27-29. The four of us came together on this article because we share the same habit - service to others.
As three students and one faculty member, we have led service projects at Ursinus College in Pennsylvania and in several communities. We caught the service bug early in our lives from one role model or another, and each of us knows that the desire to lend a hand is contagious.
The Presidents' Summit has every chance of accomplishing that same goal on a huge scale, if we don't let our cynicism distract us. There's a new surge of altruistic energy in the land, fueled largely by students. Approximately 520 colleges and more than half a million of today's college students are involved in "service learning" - programs in which community service is integrated into academic courses and internships. This growth will continue with or without a summit, but the summit can help to raise its momentum to new heights.
In the past five years, the number of Ursinus students involved in service and the hours they devote to it annually have doubled. More people are volunteering in the community, more traditional clubs are doing service, and clubs devoted entirely to service sprout up each semester. We have a new service fraternity, a new service house, and a merit scholarship program for service leaders.
Our experiences have been as varied as they have been fulfilling. Candy helped organize H.U.G.G. (Hands Uniting the Generation Gap), which matches up sixth-graders at a local middle school with residents at a nearby geriatric center. Through H.U.G.G., 14 Ursinus students have helped 80 pre-teens with service projects for geriatric center residents. When seniors smile over attention from the young, it makes Candy's day. So does getting a room full of sixth-graders to pay attention to the needs of the aging.
Zenzi was one of three Ursinus students who orchestrated a project for mentoring at-risk children at another local school. Now, each week, 27 of these youngsters meet individually with their Ursinus partners. They read, tackle homework, or just talk. One girl whose disabilities made her withdrawn has progressed from refusing to look at her mentor to enjoying photography and other crafts with her. Zenzi feels great about being able to help these young friends overcome personal challenges.
Beatrice coordinates student volunteer efforts at Ursinus. This year, she took on her biggest, most fulfilling project yet - organizing the spring break work trip to Kentucky. And Houghton advises the Leadership Scholarship program. Since 1992, he's watched students who lead others in service learn much more than organizational skills.
For all of us, service is one of life's best habits. So, we're not discouraged by the grumbling over who is or should be running the Presidents' Summit, who should get the credit for it, or whether it's an empty gesture. We think the trend toward service promises to gather even more steam from people inspired by President Clinton, former Presidents Ford, Carter, and Bush, Colin Powell, and the thousands of citizens who will volunteer in Philadelphia. If even a few more Americans in each community get the service habit because of the Presidents' Summit, it will have been a success.
* J. Houghton Kane is an associate professor of politics and adviser for the Leadership Scholarship Program at Ursinus College in Collegeville, Pa. Zenzi Ali, Candice Capstick, and Beatrice May are Ursinus students.