Spring Break Service and Justice Experience


Natalie Zickel/Villanovan Photography

Students work on painting while on their service trip.

Natalie Zickel, Co-Digital Editor

While some students may indulge in a tropical vacation for spring break, many students go back to the comfort of their homes. When I was looking into my plans for spring break, I quickly realized that it would be very similar to my schedule during fall and winter break: sleep for an entire day and binge-watch a Netflix reality dating show. I needed something more out of my break, and when I saw that Villanova offered a freshman-centered service trip I jumped on the opportunity to try something new and get to know more of my classmates.  

Villanova’s Service and Justice Experiences (SJEs) are offered during fall and spring break. During this spring break, students had the opportunity to build houses through Habitat for Humanity (HFH) in North or South Carolina, learn about immigration justice in San Diego, participate in a service retreat in West Virginia, work with community partners at the Romeo Center in New Jersey or spend a weekend locally making meals at St. Francis Inn in Philadelphia.  

“We work with a number of amazing community partners through the SJE program, all of whom are doing incredible social justice work to help their communities,” said Abigail Gorman, the Assistant Director of Service Immersion Programs “It is humbling to be able to work with and learn from them.” 

Ricky Hardee, the Executive Director of Habitat for Humanity in Marion-Dillon County South Carolina highlighted the program’s history with Villanova.  

“(We) have enjoyed a partnership with the students from Villanova University dating back to 1997,” Hardee said. “Since that time, we have had the pleasure of hosting service break trips for the students both in the spring and fall. The only year we did not host a group was during HFHI’s shutdown of their volunteer programs due to Covid.” 

After the pandemic, the amount of students participating in service programs at Villanova has dropped substantially. HFH in Marion-Dillon county would have fifteen to twenty students working every other week but recently have been getting seven to ten volunteers.
“During the 2020-2021 school year, we couldn’t run any in-person trips, so the momentum of the program halted a bit,” said Gorman “We have been in the process of rebuilding and reimagining aspects of the program and are excited about what the future holds.” 

The freshman experience offered was partnered with Habitat for Humanity, an international nonprofit based on the idea that everyone should have sustainable housing.  

“With the Habitat for Humanity homeownership model built upon affordability for the qualifying family, the labor given by each Villanova student means so much to our affiliate, as well to the family receiving the home,” said Hardee.  

Just an hour outside of Myrtle Beach, Marion-Dillon County has the highest unemployment rate in the state. We spent a week in the small town of Mullins finishing the railing for a bus driver with two kids and fixing a roof for a grandmother diagnosed with cancer. The majority of our time was spent completing a dormitory for volunteers or for families to seek shelter during hurricanes. 

With help from our supervisor Maxie Hardee, we learned how to put in ceiling installation, cock a door frame, nail shingles on a roof and how difficult it was to create a level stair railing. Freshman Alisha Wilson was one of the students on the trip who learned these invaluable skills. 

 “I was intimidated to build because I had no experience; I had never even hammered a nail before,” Wilson said. “Max, the easy-going grandfather who was our team leader, made the jobs fun and filled me with confidence. I couldn’t believe I helped build a wall and a railing and was comfortable with an electric saw and drill.” 

When we weren’t fixing houses, we found ourselves immersed in the community as each meal was provided by a nearby church or local organization. Whether it was Subway served in the dormitory or dinner hosted by a fraternal chapter of a life insurance agency in the woods, we were warmly welcomed and treated as celebrities in the small town.  

“One can only imagine that after twenty-five years of this partnership, Villanova University has become an extension of our community,” Hardee said. “Macedonia United Methodist Church has basically ‘adopted’ the student groups from Villanova after hosting them during these twenty-five years.” 

After attending an SJE trip last year in North Carolina, Junior Catherine Blowe decided to go back to the program for her spring break.  

“I was so excited when I had the opportunity to return as a leader of an SJE because I had such an amazing experience last year,” said Blowe, reflecting on her choice to lead the freshman-only service trip alongside sophomore Sulley Sanchez who she met on the SJE North Carolina trip. “Both experiences were extremely fun and rewarding learning opportunities full of memorable times with great people and communities.”  

Wilson agreed with Blowe’s sentiments as she looked back on the friendships she made on the trip.  

“I was apprehensive to go on a trip without knowing anyone very well, but I am so glad I went,” Wilson said. “By the end of the week, everyone had grown so close. I don’t think a single hour went by where we weren’t laughing, and I will cherish the memories we made forever. One of my favorite memories was on the final Saturday morning, about an hour before we were leaving South Carolina. The previous night, we had thrown together an Irish dance, and we performed it at breakfast for the members of the church who had hosted us all week long. They were so delighted by our routine that they asked for an encore for their friends who arrived for breakfast late. Teaching everyone to dance was so fun; we were all laughing the whole time, and I was really impressed by how quickly everyone picked up the Ceili steps.”  

From Irish dancing to building railings, our week-long trip in Mullins was filled with abundant laughter and lifelong memories. Not only did we leave South Carolina with long-lasting friendships and valuable skills, but our group of ten left Marion-Dillon county with a completed dormitory, a sturdy railing and a repaired roof contributing to Villanova’s legacy in the area. 

I witnessed the impact of two decades of Villanova students firsthand while working on the roof replacing shingles. Max was with us twenty feet above the ground teaching us techniques to drive the nail down in the most efficient way possible. While we were nailing we could see a line of similar roofs to the right of us, and we asked Max if those were Habitat homes. He confirmed our thinking and mentioned that all of the houses were built by Villanova students. Six houses, from the foundation to the framing to the painting, all stand because of Villanova students. To see the effect our university has had on this community over the past two decades was truly inspiring to witness.  

If you find yourself dreading the boring routine of home during fall or spring break, consider stepping outside your comfort zone and attending a Service and Justice Experience. 

“I think students should go on an SJE in order to encounter communities outside of Villanova, to learn about social justice issues in our world, and to grow in their understanding of how service and justice go hand in hand,” said Gorman. “A great hope of the SJEs is that it will be a transformative experience for the students who participate, and that they take what they learn during their immersions forward with them into their personal and professional lives.”