Kasey LaFollette, Drake Turner and Yusanda Blackmon all describe it as a chance to learn more about social-service agencies working in Fort Wayne and the programs they offer.
So instead of taking the week off or going south to enjoy fun in the sun, they are among 20 local college students participating this week in United Way of Allen County's first Alternative Spring Break: Urban Plunge program.
“I can already tell this experience is going to be life-changing for me,” said Turner, a senior human services major at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, on Monday afternoon, the first day. “It really is just opening my eyes to all of the needs in the community.”
United Way of Allen County organized the Urban Plunge program for students of IPFW, University of Saint Francis and Ivy Tech Community College-Northeast, said Ruthie Krueger, the local United Way's education initiatives coordinator. All three colleges are on spring break this week.
Other United Way agencies have held similar programs that have been successful, so local officials decided to try it here, Krueger said. She hopes the program will become an annual event.
Local colleges liked the idea because it gives students a first-hand glimpse of social-service work in the community, Krueger said. Agencies hosting the students are excited to share their stories with prospective future employees, interns or volunteers.
Students will meet 8:30 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Friday this week. Each day, they will visit two or three social-service agencies that work in one of United Way's key focus areas: Health, Education, Income and Basic Needs.
Participation is free to students, thanks to a grant from Indiana Campus Compact, a consortium of Indiana colleges and universities set up to encourage students' involvement in community service. IPFW, USF and Ivy Tech also contributed funding, Krueger said, and Citilink will transport the group from agency to agency.
Monday, which was Health day, began at United Way and then included visits to the AIDS Task Force of Northeast Indiana and Neighborhood Health Clinics.
At Neighborhood Health Clinics, students first went to a large classroom where Rikki Goldstein, the agency's social services team leader, gave them an overview of its services.
Students then broke into three groups, and Goldstein and two other staff members led them on tours through a maze of hallways to see exam rooms and treatment areas for services ranging from women's health and pediatric care to family medicine and dental care.
LaFollette, a junior social work major at USF, already works as a social work intern at the local VA Northern Indiana Health Care System hospital. She signed up for Urban Plunge to learn more about local social-service agencies she hasn't seen yet — and to which she may be referring clients.
She was pleased the program provided names of workers at agencies so clients can be referred directly to those staff.
“It kind of makes me feel a little more welcome at the agencies,” she said of Monday's visits.
Turner and Blackmon also wanted to get a better idea of what services are offered in the community.
Blackmon, a hospitality administration and management major at Ivy Tech, already works in social-service ministry with her husband, Bishop Reginald Blackmon of Latter Rain Ministries on Holton Avenue.
She hopes to learn more about help available at local agencies for people they try to assist at their ministry.
Based on the first day, she believes students will leave equipped to tell people what agencies can help them and what materials they need to bring to apply for or receive that help.
“You get a more realistic perspective,” she said. “You meet the people who meet the needs.”
“Ultimately, our hope is students will walk away knowing more about the community,” Krueger said.
She and United Way officials also hope this week's experiences ignite a passion that leads each student to go out and make a difference in the lives of local residents.