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Students take break to help out

Wednesday, March 25, 2009  
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By Cathy Bayer
Posted Mar 25, 2009 @ 08:32 PM

ROCKFORD — Rockford College sophomore David Gray could have returned home for spring break or hit the beach.

Instead, the physical education major from Erie in western Illinois traveled 750 miles south to Starkville, Miss., with Habitat for Humanity for his weeklong break from classes.

This year, 26 Rockford College students and 11 alumni and staff members participated in the Collegiate Challenge from March 7 to 14. The Habitat-sponsored event is held to provide simple, decent and affordable homes for people in need. The 14th annual trip included 10 first-timers.

Friends who previously made the trip convinced Gray that he’d regret not going. They were right, he said, but it’s difficult to put the experience into words.

“You know that you’ve done something to help,” he said.

A few years ago people told Roy Roncal he should go because of the kind of person he is; he likes to help people. Roncal, the director of campus safety and security, is also an alumnus and made his third trip to Starkville.

On the trip, students start to realize who they are and who their friends will be. They learn to coexist and share a common goal, he said.

“Satisfaction of a family getting that opportunity is really what it’s all about,” Roncal said.

For Megan Hofstetter, a senior math major and secondary education minor, this year’s trip was also her third to Starkville.

“It just makes you feel awesome,” Hofstetter said.

The realization hits you — “Wow, I’m actually doing something good,” she said. “I love Starkville.”

Each year, Rockford College is the first of three or four groups to build in Starkville. The foundation is set when they arrive, but the group is responsible for framing and insulating the house; if there’s time, they shingle the roof. Rain didn’t let the group shingle this year.

Hofstetter has reconnected with the Starkville homeowners whose houses she’s worked on in the past. The homeowners are quick to thank the workers and offer hugs and praise, and are happy to see familiar faces return each year, she said.

“It makes you want to come back.”

The group stayed at Camp Seminole, run by the Boy Scouts. With all the teamwork, close living quarters and long bus ride, the group bonded. Participants also documented their trip on a Rockford College blog — some wrote about how the group transcended cliques. Gray and Hofstetter said they’ve made long-term friends with the other participants on the trip.

Before building, the group meets the family that will live in the house. That helps workers know they’re constructing more than just a building. This year’s group helped build for a single mom and her five children.

The trip is advertised at Rockford College’s orientation, and for many people, the annual trip has become a tradition.

“It’s very much in their heart,” said Robin Kenney, an administrative assistant with the Rockford College Music Academy. “This is a service community. I think it’s ingrained in them.”

After graduation, Hofstetter is hoping she’ll be able to return to Starkville.

“At the end of the day, you feel like you actually accomplished something,” she said. Going to Starkville and working, “I feel like I’ve actually had a break.”

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