For thousands of college students, spring break on the Emerald Coast is one big party. But for a few hundred kids in Gulf and Franklin counties, it's a reason to serve.
A group of Auburn University students is on a mission to make a difference. It's the seventh year that First Baptist Church of Opelika (Alabama) has sent students to the Panhandle to meet the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of the community.
Teams are working on projects in Port St. Joe and Apalachicola.
"When the students get here they just show so much love and compassion to the community, it just energizes everyone," Eddie Fields of the Christian Community Development Fund said. The Port St. Joe agency identifies projects to assist qualified families and assigns them to the students when they arrive.
According to Kayla Ketron, one of the church group leaders, the students are more interested in service than parties. "This is a privileged bunch that they get to go to college," Ketron said. "It's a great reminder to be thankful for everything that the Lord provides for you."
One team spent Monday replacing the dugout roofs at a softball field while another installed vinyl siding on an old building.
A few streets away, Darion and Gwen Dawson watched students and adult supervisors install a new metal roof – something they needed but couldn't afford – on their Avenue G home.
"I just appreciate them so much for what they're doing for us," Darion Dawson said. "They're some good kids and they're doing an awesome job throughout the community."
Over at the office of Career Source Gulf Coast, everything is sparkling clean after student volunteers spent a day working inside. "They're definitely an inspiration," Johanna White, Special Projects Coordinator, said. "It's a tremendous reward and we're always in favor of them coming back and seeing us every time."
Joshua Boor, a senior in Auburn's engineering program, said he prefers the long term benefits of service to the short term pleasure of a beach party. "I see the eternal reward there is in loving on these people and getting to know them and investing in them and hopefully making a difference in their lives," he said.
Ketron said students build mutually beneficial relationships in the communities they serve.
"It's neat to just see how much it touches [peoples'] lives," Ketron said. "But they don't understand how much they touch our lives as well."