Cadets trade beaches for hammers during Alternative Spring Break

  • Published
  • By John Van Winkle
  • U.S. Air Force Academy Public Affairs
Dozens of Academy cadets traded in spring break's sunlit beaches for hammers, nails and saws to build homes for the needy during Alternative Spring Break March 22-26.

The Center for Character and Leadership Development hooked up 63 cadet volunteers with Habitat for Humanity housing projects in Kansas City and the Texas towns of El Paso, Wichita Falls, Bryan and Victoria.

The 14 cadets who travelled the furthest from the Academy started their spring breaks at a warehouse in Victoria, Texas, loading lumber for a construction site.

"The cadets are essential to our work here," said Victoria habitat coordinator LeAnne Welder. "We couldn't get it done without them. I have very few trained leaders, that's what we struggle for the most. The trained leader needs hands to help him get the job done. We have the leaders, but we don't have crew."

For a week, they had the crew -- from the Cadet Wing. The only college group going to Victoria this spring break was from the Academy, and all were eager and more than willing to get to work.

Directing the cadets at the job site was Habitat's local construction leader, Texas Army National Guard Staff Sgt. Steve Speer. The tanker-turned-recruiter tapped into his previous job experience in construction to lead the work on the house.

Cadet 2nd Class Bobby Walker said the cadets were excited about the cause and the change of pace. Six or seven classes, combined with military duties in the squadron and athletics can wear on even the most resolute of cadets.

"Compared to USAFA, doing manual labor in Texas is a vacation," joked Cadet 3rd Class Brendan Maestas, a San Antonio native assigned to Cadet Squadron 40.

Cadets Maestas and Walker were two of several would-be comedians among the group of cadets, helping keep a light-hearted approach to the hard work ahead, and keeping it fun. Each time the words "spring break" came up in anyone's conversation, there would be a pause and the cadets would yell "Spring break, woohoo!" in unison, with Cadet Walker being one of the chant's ringleaders.

Some of this camaraderie was born on the drive to Victoria. It took two days for the cadets, driving two vans, to reach the small Texas town. Victoria, which is an hour inland from the Gulf coast, opened its arms to the cadets. A local church gave them a place to sleep, local businesses donated food, and a church youth choir even serenaded the cadets upon their arrival.

When they arrived to the 800 Block of Virginia Avenue in downtown Victoria with their building supplies, they found a site that had a concrete base but zero electricity and moat of mud surrounding the concrete. With a generator and some elbow grease, the cadets had two of the home's exterior walls in place before lunch.

Ten cadets went to Bryan, Texas -- a small central town in central Texas well-known among college football circles. Bryan borders the town of College Station -- home to Texas A&M University. It's the second time in four years that Academy cadets have visited Bryan for Alternative Spring Break.

The Bryan chapter of Habitat for Humanity has been building homes in the Angel's Gate subdivision on the western edge of town for several years. With several groups of volunteers coming through for their respective spring breaks, Habitat's team leaders in Bryan have a system in place to turn inexperienced college students into construction workers with a minimal amount of time.

When it comes to interior wall frames, they have supplies neatly divided and even color-coded. Studs treated with different colors serve different purposes -- pink 2x4 studs are vertical struts, while green boards are bottom horizontal struts for the wall frame and uncolored boards are the top of the frame. Green and uncolored boards are marked at certain intervals, to show where the pink studs or door frames should be nailed. The frames are also marked by their interior location in the design. So instead of spending the morning hammering under the hot Texas sun, the cadets are able to mass-assemble 10 interior walls in a cool warehouse unbothered by weather, and then bring the completed wall frames to the job site that same afternoon.

"We're having a lot of fun -- we've got a really got a good group and some hard workers," said Cadet 1st Class Michael Bates of CS 16, the cadet in charge for the Bryan group and a native of Allen, Texas. "This is my third year with Alternative Spring Break. I picked College Station just because I liked the area. I almost went to Texas A&M over the Academy and have a lot of friends who are there, and I like this area a lot."

It's also another chance to practice his leadership skills. After a bit of paperwork, organization and delegation, he took his team on the road for what this year's Alternative Spring Breakers regard as one of the top destinations this year.

"It's a good time," Cadet Bates said. "It's a lot better getting a chance to get away from the Academy for a week. I, and my assistant cadet in charge, are given responsibility and we're actually in charge of the people. I have to use my best judgment without any officers around, which is pretty nice."

One of his team members even worked through an injury to participate.

"I hurt my knee trying out for women's rugby," said Cadet 3rd Class Kirby Forssell of CS 27. "I got tackled and my knee bent the wrong way, tearing my ACL." It's her second year at the Academy her and second spring break with Habitat for Humanity. She went to Phoenix last year with her roommate from Basic Cadet Training.

Volunteering for Alternative Spring Break only costs $20, giving cadets an economical way to spend a week out of town, see someplace new, do something meaningful and still stay within their budgets.

However, cadets still have to budget their time carefully, as not every cadet can responsibly toss the books aside for an entire week. In Victoria, Cadet 4th Class Uddit Patel brought his French books with him to keep up with his coursework and complete his foreign language requirement for his freshman year. In Wichita Falls, Cadet 4th Class Rebecca Bailey of CS-30 was one of those cadets who admitted to juggling coursework during spring break.

"I've got a 5-7 history paper due that I have to do research on, and I have to list five books as sources, so I have to read them," she explained, "and I've got a 5-7 page math paper - a progress report -- due about a week after I get back." So she spent some of her spare time, and the hours travelling between the Academy and Wichita Falls, working on history and calculus classes.

Cadet Bailey was one of 10 cadets who traveled to Wichita Falls, where they teamed up with 16 students from the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point to work on three houses on Wichita Falls' east side. The three homes are part of a growing subdivision that Habitat is building with the help of college student volunteers. The students and cadets divided up into smaller teams to tackle projects, make new friends and move each of the houses closer to completion.

"I've been painting," said Cadet 3rd Class Allana Gallant of CS 36. "Mostly just like the house color and trim color. The other part of our group's been putting tresses on the other house, roofing it and putting particle board up inside."

The biology major had some painting experience going into spring break, but had never put up tresses or particle board before. Some of the work wasn't perfect, and there were several rough edges to be refined after the drywall was put in, but the majority of the manual labor was done. But unfamiliarity with the task wasn't stopping the cadets or students -- all were focused on the end goal of community service.

"I wanted to give back to the Air Force because they give so much to us, and I wanted to give back to the community that helps pay for our college tuition," said Cadet Gallant. "This is just a way to give back to the people who give so much for us."

Alternative Spring Break gives cadets a paid but no-frills opportunity to go somewhere new during spring break to work with Habitat for Humanity and to put deeds behind the words "service before self." It is an extension of the Cadet Service Learning Program, said Capt. Julie Mustian, the CSL Program director. This year, 63 cadets volunteered to help build homes with Collegiate Challenge, a Habitat for Humanity Program.

"Past cadet feedback has continually been positive," Captain Mustian said, "with comments saying, 'This has been one of the most rewarding and memorable weeks of my life.' It is amazing and humbling to watch all the countless selfless acts the cadets do throughout the year. Alternative Spring Break is just one of those selfless acts."

During the 2008-2009 academic year, cadets collectively volunteered 36,334 hours of community service on 2,202 different projects and events. During the fall 2010 semester, cadets completed more than 16,900 hours of community service.