Spring Break on the streets

On the second night of his spring break, near midnight, Regan Koch is reeling a bit - though not for the reason some people might think.

"I just saw a guy living out of a computer box - the same kind I just bought," he says, a little shaken. At the back of a blue van, he fills a few paper cups with spicy noodle broth from a three-gallon pot, and takes them to the cardboard shanties nearby.

A light rain has been falling all night. Mr. Koch, a senior from the University of Kansas, has spent this Sunday evening with four other students, bringing steaming soup, hot chocolate, and blankets to some of the homeless scattered throughout Manhattan.

The Kansas students have come to New York for an "alternative" spring break. Throughout the US, many students are using their spring breaks - a time notorious for bacchanalian excess - to participate in community-based service projects, such as tutoring migrant farmworkers in Florida, building homes in Appalachia, or registering voters in rural Mississippi.

Last year, almost 20,000 students from more than 350 universities across the nation participated in an alternative spring break, according to Break Away (www.vanderbilt.edu/ breakaway), a Nashville-based organization that helps connect student groups with volunteer opportunities.

"It's really growing phenomenally," says Rachel Tallman, director of Break Away, which started in 1991. "Alternative spring-break programs are coming to more and more college campuses.... We really hope [the students'] experience is a springboard into becoming lifelong, active citizens."

THE group from Kansas has come to work with Emmaus House, a transitional-living community in East Harlem for former drug addicts and homeless people. They spent the week working with the residents and staff - most of whom at some point have lived on the streets - helping out with the various programs the house provides to people without shelter.

Every Sunday evening, with the help of volunteers, the community makes soup and takes it to some of the cardboard "cities" in Midtown Manhattan - places Gary Alford, the resident who organizes the evening treks, knows well.

"I was out on the streets for two years," he tells the students gathered in the kitchen. As he shakes some pepper into the soup on the stove in front of him, he adds, "I lived in subway tunnels, doorways, alleys - and I'll tell you, you'll see that a smile and a warm greeting is worth 20 cups of hot soup."

The students were all brimming with excitement before the van left. The seven women and three men in the group had been meeting together every week since January, listening to speakers, writing papers about homelessness - and they were anxious to finally do something "real."

One of the purposes of an alternative spring break is to give students an opportunity to learn about the problems of communities with which they may have had little or no direct contact.

As they put rolls and onion bagels in plastic bags and listen to the hip-hop music coming from the kitchen, the students reflectively begin to discuss issues of diversity.

"Now I know how minorities in Kansas must feel all the time," says Mary Ellen Childs, a freshman from Ontario and one of the site leaders. Everyone in the group is white. Harlem, and Emmaus House, is predominately African-American.

After the students load the van with the food and blankets, Mr. Alford tells the five going out this evening, "I plan on giving you a ride you'll never forget."

As they drive down a famous strip of Park Avenue in Midtown, Brad Becky, the grizzled volunteer-driver of the van tells them, "We're about to pass the Waldorf, where the rich and famous meet, and then St. Bartholomew's, where the not-so-rich-and-famous meet."

Next to the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, one of the most exclusive hotels in New York City, three cardboard shanties stand on the steps in front of the ornate doors of St. Bartholomew's Church. They find four more near the Trump Tower, on the steps of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian.

Out on the wet streets of Manhattan, some of the students found that wanting to help and being able to were not not necessarily the same thing. In fact, many homeless people wouldn't leave their boxes. "I imagined hordes of people coming up to me, hugging me, grateful I was here to help," says Koch.

Ms. Childs adds, "You always feel guilty walking past homeless people, and now we're here to do something." Her voice trails off as she looks at the pot of soup, still half-full.

Alford tries to reassure them. "When I was out there, I used to think, 'Man, I ain't taking nothing from those guys.' But believe me, I was glad to see you out there. It was good just to see that someone cared, even if I was too proud to take something."

They return to Emmaus House near 1:30 a.m., most of them exhausted. As they sit and talk about their experience before going up their rooms, Jerker Zetterlund, an exchange student from Sweden, says, "My tiredness makes me realize the reality of them not having a place to go. They can't say, like us, 'I can't wait to get home and go to bed.' "

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