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Helping us help ourselves: Shepherd students to help southern West Virginia town

By Staff | Feb 28, 2020

Members of last year's Alternative Spring Break team pause in the middle of their work for a photograph. Courtesy photo

SHEPHERDSTOWN — Shepherd University’s spring break will begin on March 13, when the school’s residence halls will all close for a week of rest from classes. But for some Shepherd students, the break will involve little time for rest, according to Shepherd University Director of Shepherd University Center for Appalachian Studies and Communities Sylvia Shurbutt.

“We invite you to take part with something this semester that makes a difference,” Shurbutt said in the Robert C. Byrd Center, on Jan. 31. “Here at Shepherd, we value community service, really strongly. We’ve a group of brilliant young people who give up their spring break to perform service and refurbish places in southern West Virginia, to help rebuild Appalachia.

“One of the most important things about Alternative Spring Break, is what it does for the students. Many of them say this has been a life-changing experience,” Shurbutt said, mentioning many Shepherd University students plan to move away from West Virginia after graduation. “When these students have this experience, it makes them want to stay and continue making a difference in West Virginia.”

The Alternative Spring Break students and faculty members work every year with the Coalfield Development Corporation, based in the southern West Virginia town of Wayne. The corporation, which was founded by 2008 alumnus Brandon Dennison, connects the team with the owners of homes and other properties in need of cleaning and restoration.

“We both went on the trip last year, and it really was a life-changing experience,” said Elana Gutmann, of Morgantown, referring to herself and social work major Alyssa Garagiola. “We were the bridge that connected the rest of the West Virginia community with the coalfield, and I’m looking forward to doing that again this year.”

The trip is as low-cost as possible, with housing being provided for free, school vans being used for transportation and food being brought on the trip, to avoid the expense of going out to eat. However, the cost of the food and gasoline for the trip still costs about $8,000 every year, according to SU Assistant Director of Student Engagement Rachael Meads.

“What a difference it makes in that community and in the lives of our students. It is a huge learning opportunity for our students, many of whom have never gone outside of the Eastern Panhandle,” Meads said, mentioning students each contribute $100 and participating in fundraisers to help cover the trip costs. “It is a huge learning opportunity for our students, many of whom have never gone outside of the Eastern Panhandle. “Our students are amazing — they work their tails off. They aren’t on a beach at Daytona, that’s for sure.”

The Corporation of Shepherdstown donates $500 to the trip every year, but more donations are needed from the community, to cover the trip expenses. Donations can be made at www.shepherd.edu/alternative-spring-break/.