Alternative breaks focus on service

At most colleges and universities across the country, spring breaks that occurred in March and April are just moments to remember - especially if those breaks were simply vacations, not life-changing experiences.

For college students like Erin Vick and Caryn Shebowich who attend Cornell College, the time they spent helping others on their "alternative" spring break inspired how they are spending their summer ... and perhaps how they will spend their future.

Vick, who used her spring break to tutor children at the Boys and Girls Club of Metro Atlanta, is working Memorial Day through Labor Day coordinating volunteers at Matthew 25, a nonprofit in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Part of the sophomore's decision to continue working with the poor this summer was because of what one of the children in Atlanta told her when it was time for her to go. He said sadly, "I can't smile because you're not coming back."

'I love doing service'

Being able to affect lives is the reason Vick said she has chosen to do what she does in and out of Cornell.

"I love doing service," she said. "To me, it's so much more important than just hanging out and not helping anyone."

She said Cornell's out-of-the-classroom lessons have taught her to apply what she's learned to her own life.

"I've volunteered before, but because Cornell has given me opportunities to work, especially with the homeless, I'm more appreciative of what I have and more committed to giving back."

Her hands-on volunteer experience has helped her decide what she wants to do after college.

"The alternative breaks have given me insight into the work of nonprofits and now I'm interested in a career working for an organization that helps others," Vick said.

Caryn Shebowich of Cornell College believes school breaks are for helping others. Web-only photo courtesy of Caryn Shebowich.
Caryn Shebowich of Cornell College believes school breaks are for helping others. Web-only photo courtesy of Caryn Shebowich.

Pierre Omadjela, Director of Communications and Development for the Central Congo Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church, won third place in the inaugural Visual Networking Index Service Awards Program for his storytelling about the power of technology to connect people and lives.

The VNI Service Awards were sponsored by Cisco Systems to recognize innovation in connecting the unconnected. Participants from 108 countries around the world wrote about topics such as communication for people with disabilities (Columbia) and using technology to empower rural farmers (Uganda).

Omadjela tackled the tough topic of access to healthcare and prevention of malaria, writing about the importance of technology in being able to send helpful and lifesaving information to hospitals, clinics, health centers and communities quickly and broadly. His essay told the story of how Frontline SMS affects the lives of the Congolese people as they try to find solutions in fighting malaria, a preventable and treatable disease that kills one person every 60 seconds.

"Technology is making such a difference," Omadjela said. "I used to receive information about a situation one month after the event took place. Now with the Frontline SMS technology, I am able to know what happened the same day and act quickly by sending health messages to help prevent some sicknesses and to educate members of our church."

"Living in the United States, it is easy to take for granted the benefits of being connected," said Deborah Strickland, Social and Digital Communications Manager for Cisco. "We might use our mobile devices to watch a movie, text our teenager, or listen to a mobile device. The entertainment value of being connected is easy to understand, but in many regions of the world, lives are being saved due to access to a mobile device."

United Methodist Communications previously awarded Omadjela an ICT4D (Information Communication Technology for Development) Church Initiatives grant to provide him with a ruggedized laptop with Frontline SMS and modem, which has enabled him to do mass text messaging without need of the Internet. He also received online training and a limited amount of SMS monetary support.

"Support of technology in developing countries is just one of ways we are investing in saving lives from malaria," said Larry Hollon, Chief Executive Officer, United Methodist Communications. "Our goal is to use every available communications resource, from technology to education, to improve quality of life and, as in this instance, to save lives globally."

Health problems in Africa are exacerbated by lack of Internet connectivity, few computers, and a shortage of people who know how to use the technological resources that are available.

Omadjela says that more computers could help the conference to do a more efficient job of getting the word out about malaria to the population of 75 million Congolese. He intends to use the $1,000 in award money to purchase an additional laptop, install Frontline SMS and buy airtime to send timely messages. In the future, Omadjela hopes to create more health centers in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The judging criteria included each participant's ability to garner comments on their story. Strickland said, "Pierre did an amazing job of rallying his community and his peers to read his story and provide feedback." She also said that one of the reasons Omadjela won the support of the judges was because they felt his program is likely to be around in the long-term.

One judge said, "Any program that aims to eradicate malaria through education as well as medical means is a strong program, in my mind. This is one of the greatest challenges facing Africa today; anything that can be done to reduce its impact is powerful indeed."

ICT4D Church Initiatives is a program of United Methodist Communications which aims to equip those in developing countries with technology, training and support for their communications needs. To make a tax-deductible donation, go to and designate your gift to Information Communication Technology for Development.

Media contact:
Susan Passi Klaus [email protected]

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