For thousands of college and high school students, spring break means a chance to escape the stresses of school, flee the misery of winter and soak up sunshine.
But 182 students are trading suntan lotion for hard hats and swim suits for hammers as they spend spring break helping build homes for Habitat for Humanity of Pinellas County.
"I think we're having more fun than if we were just sitting on the beach," said Kristen Viverito, a graduate of Countryside High School who is now a psychology graduate student at the University of Indianapolis. "We get to get out and really do something during the day."
Through the first week of April, students from Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, New York and Louisiana will spend a week working on home sites in Clearwater, Dunedin and St. Petersburg. The volunteers are part of a Habitat for Humanity campaign called Collegiate Challenge involving more than 12,000 students nationwide.
Locally, the effort includes students from the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, Skycrest Christian School, Admiral Farragut Academy and Indian Rocks Christian School.
Volunteers work six to seven hours each day for four or five days and also commit to raise money for Habitat in the weeks leading up to their trip. The organization expects students to contribute $1.5-million nationwide.
Last week, students from the University of Indianapolis and the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford worked at 1024 and 1028 N Missouri Ave. in Clearwater.
Viverito, 24, came with a group from her psychology department. She said they wanted to do something meaningful over the break.
"We all felt like we could use some service in our lives," she said.
Viverito's classmate, Jacqueline Elster, also said the opportunity to serve motivated her to make the trip.
"Our psychology department talks about a commitment to volunteerism," she said. What better way to lead than by example?"
Habitat for Humanity of Pinellas County has built 143 homes since its founding in 1985. Future homeowners, along with volunteers, construct the homes, overseen by a professional construction supervisor. Families must demonstrate a need for shelter, the ability to pay back a no-interest loan for the cost of the home, and put in 250 to 350 sweat equity hours.
Habitat site supervisor Jack Sutfin said he normally only gets volunteers a few times a week, so the influx of students allows him to get a lot of work completed in a short amount of time.
"That's why we call it March Madness," he said, as he watched over students scurrying over the two half-completed homes. "We're really laying it down out here."
Five students and two faculty members from USF-St. Petersburg's social work department spent Tuesday nailing up siding and working on the roof of a house at 610 Lyndhurst St. in Dunedin.
Jessica Cabness, an assistant professor of social work, organized the USF group. She said working on a Habitat home allows students take what they have learned into the community.
"This offers students an opportunity to contribute to someone's dream of home ownership," she said. "It's a great lesson in community development."
Cabness said she had no real construction experience prior to volunteering and that there was definitely a learning curve.
"I could have used a Shingles 101 workshop before this," she said, laughing.
The work does not end when the students leave, Habitat of Pinellas communication director Jamie Cataldo said.
So the organization is always looking for volunteers — with or without construction experience.
Michael Maharrey can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8779.