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Students forgo parties to help

It was 10 a.m., an hour before the only hot meal that would be served that day at the Society of St. Vincent de Paul feeding center.

Outside, sitting on the steps and reading a book, a lone man waited.

Inside, about a dozen college students were helping prepare the meal that would feed him and hundreds of other hungry men, women and children who soon would queue up for the canned salmon over noodles, green beans, sandwich and Jell-O being served that day.

Religious convictions had brought the students, members of Penn State University's Christian Student Fellowship, to the feeding center. Other members of their group were cleaning windows, moving furniture and sorting clothes at the St. Vincent de Paul Thrift Store. Another group was helping to build a playground at Central Christian School.

In what is said to be a growing movement nationwide, students are shunning traditional spring break beach parties to perform community service. During the past few weeks, young adults from Penn State and Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia have come to St. Petersburg, where they have cheerfully chopped vegetables, painted murals and performed a variety of other chores.

"They helped set up our preschool classes," Dawn Burhart of Central Christian Church said of the Penn State students.

"They worked on our grounds. A dozen removed wallpaper. We had some remove ceiling tiles from the hallway for the school, and a dozen of them set up the new playground. Several of the students joined the children on the playground and also in story time."

During all of that, they also put on a puppet show.

There was sacrifice as well as satisfaction.

"I kind of gave up a chance to see my family," said Katie Becker, 18, a biochemistry major who joked about her ineptitude in the kitchen as she tackled can after can of green beans.

"My family understood. They were really happy that I wanted to spend spring break here."

Early one morning recently, she and several friends crowded into the industrial kitchen at St. Vincent de Paul to open cans, chop vegetables and do whatever was necessary to help chef Curtis Bellamy prepare the meal that would be served under whirring fans in the dining hall. There tables had been set with paper towel placemats, doughnuts, polystyrene cups and plastic forks.

The students teased each other and laughed as they worked.

"I have never cooked in my life," said Coleen Masusako, a pre-med major from Louisiana.

Pensively, she added: "I feel sorry for these people who have to come here to get the necessities. I have everything provided for me. I realize that I should really be thankful for what I have."

Katrina Derstine, 19, said, "I was glad that we were able to help."

So was Mary Loughlin, manager of the kitchen.

"We are getting things done that were backlogged," she said. "No job is too big for them. No matter what you ask, there is a smile on their face. We are really blessed to have them, and they are a wonderful example for all of us. I can see Jesus in their faces."

In St. Petersburg, the St. Vincent de Paul Society feeds as many as 500 people daily. Founded in 1833 by Federic Ozanam, then a law student in Paris, the society operates in Roman Catholic dioceses across the country and overseas. It is named after St. Vincent de Paul, a priest in 17th century France who dedicated his life to helping the poor.

Volunteering for the organization, said William Buzz Roberts, campus minister with Christian Student Fellowship at Penn State, is an excellent way for the students to practice their faith.

"What we try to do every year during our spring break is try to focus on some type of ministry. The whole focus is to get the students to minister to the needs of others," he said.

Previously Penn State students have helped in Homestead, after Hurricane Andrew, and in St. Louis and Houston after severe floods.

Unlike the Penn State students, the five young adults who came to St. Petersburg from Savannah College of Art and Design were not sponsored by a religious organization. Instead, they were part of a program designed to give students an alternative to traditional spring break activities.

"This is essentially the fifth year we have been doing this," said Kory Duncan, community service coordinator for the private college.

"Where colleges are concerned, we want to give students a positive alternative for spring break as opposed to what is clearly not the most healthy choice. It is not a judgment thing, but that alcohol consumption and the looseness of sexual activity are not safe. In addition to that, I see participation in service as a part of the education of students."

It was that and more for 19-year-old Carl Vincent Holden. "I was, like, doing all this work in school and I was feeling pretty down and I wanted something to pick me up," the Arkansas native said. "Usually doing this type of charity work brings your spirits back up."

Lola Walker, St. Vincent de Paul executive director, can explain that feeling.

"The reason we need to service the poor is not because they need it, but because we need them," she said. "We all need to have a purpose in life. We learn so much about the poor and about ourselves and why Jesus came. And just about any religion talks about caring for the least of our brothers and sisters."

This week Holden and other members of his group helped paint the home of an elderly St. Petersburg resident. They also painted murals at Beacon House, which provides assistance to homeless men, and the James B. Sanderlin Family Center, where tutoring, after-school and other programs are offered.

Wendy Wesley, volunteer services coordinator for the Volunteer Action Center, which arranged the art college's visit to St. Petersburg, said, "People are surprised that a group of college kids would give up their week."

But at St. Vincent de Paul, no one is surprised by such generosity.

"The fact that they are college students and spent all their daylight hours working with us for the second year in a row, I think that speaks to the fact that this is a real opportunity for them to put their religious beliefs into practice," Walker said.

"We can have our private prayer time and our private meditation time, but if that doesn't move us to practice what we believe, our belief is pretty hollow."

To help

St. Vincent de Paul, 123 Eighth St. N.; 823-2516.

Volunteer Action Center, 5959 Central Ave., Suite 200; call 893-1140.