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College students forgo beach to help

NATCHEZ — For two groups of 2011 spring breakers from the northeast, their attitude this week was “Natchez or bust.”

And bust they did — through walls of a Habitat for Humanity house on Zoa Street and the hearts of the children and staff at the Natchez Children’s Home Services.

Instead of flying to the Dominican Republic or taking a sailing trip to the Caribbean like her friends, Boston University sophomore Amanda Nasser took a 36-hour bus ride south on Saturday morning to help out at the Natchez Children’s Home for her spring break.

Nasser was one of 11 students from BU to attend the alternative spring break program in Natchez.

“This trip is more productive (than a vacation) and obviously better for the Children’s Home,” Nasser said.

Nasser said she is studying education and chose the trip because of its involvement with children.

Wednesday, the BU students got on their hands and knees to weed and till several rows of freshly laid compost in the Children’s Home garden.

Buddy Minor, who helps maintain the garden at the Children’s Home, said the students were good workers who not afraid to get dirty and do some manual labor.

One of the trip coordinators, David Bradley, said the Natchez trip is one of the most popular of the 36 options for alternative spring break plans, which are coordinated through BU’s community service center.

The majority of the participants were from the north, and Natchez was most of the student’s first trip to the South, Bradley said.

“It feels like we’re in a movie,” Bradley said of a blue-skied Natchez.

The BU group also soaked up local flavor by attending the Historic Natchez Tableaux.

“It’s so picturesque,” Bradley said.

Bradley said getting caught inside the “BU bubble” is easy when he is constantly focusing on studies, so taking a week off to travel and doing something for others was new, different and rewarding.

Minor said he could not do the work without the students, who also helped plant persimmon, fig and Asian pear trees for the Children’s Home’s new orchard.

Children’s Home Development Director Joe Mitchell said the students’ garden work will provide an invaluable educational experience for the Preschool Day Treatment students, who will soon plant, watch grow and pick vegetables from the garden.

The spring breakers also helped organize the thrift shop, sanded rooms to prepare them for renovations and helped teachers in the classrooms, Mitchell said.

Rachel Lieb, a sophomore from Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., said it was good to spend her spring break somewhere different.

“I wanted to see a different part of the country, and I’ve never been to Mississippi or this far south,” said Lieb, who was one of a group of Hamilton College students working at the Habitat for Humanity house.

After spending most of the week in Natchez working to build a Habitat for Humanity house on Zoa Street for a mother and her son, Lieb is glad she came.

“It’s very, very different — but good different,” she said.

Since Monday, a group of 10 students have rolled up their sleeves, built walls, ceilings and sanded the porch of the two-bedroom house.

Cynthia Rodriguez said she is excited to see what the house will look like when they finish working on it Friday.

Rodriguez said she has enjoyed the food and people of Natchez.

“People have been bending over backwards trying to welcome us and feed us,” Rodriguez said.

“Southern hospitality is real,” Lieb agreed.

The students gave back as much positive energy to Natchez’s community as much as it’s given to them, according to Habitat for Humanity Secretary/Treasurer Duncan McFarlane.

McFarlane said he has enjoyed working with the young people for their energy, strength and willingness to get the job done.

“Sheetrock mud, that’s not a fun job, but they tackle them,” McFarlane said.

“They want to be here.”

Other than a rewarding feeling of helping others and exposure to a different culture, the warm temperatures and sunny skies were a cherry on top of the students alternate spring break.

“I just checked (the weather in Boston),” shorts and T-shirt-clad BU student Brian Oh said. “It’s like 37 degrees.”

“I won’t be able to wear shorts for a while in Boston,” Oh said.

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