While thousands of college students flocked to Cancun, Daytona Beach, and the other spring-break hot spots for a week of partying, 13 West Chester University students headed to another hot spot this month.
The group, most of them nutrition majors, spent a week in Honduras, helping combat starvation and disease in one of the world's poorest countries.
Janae Weikel, a 22-year-old from Souderton, traveled to Honduras for the first time in 2003, her senior year at Christopher Dock Mennonite High School, in a trip organized by the MAMA Project. Priscilla Benner, the mother of one of Weikel's friends, had started the organization in 1987 to link mothers in Mennonite churches in Pennsylvania to mothers in Honduras, working with malnourished children there.
Twenty years later, the MAMA Project (Mujeres Amigas Miles Apart) sends 15 to 20 groups to Honduras each year, working in more than 60 communities, with projects expanded into Haiti and Nigeria.
"When I came back, I was hooked, and I knew that this was a passion that I would want to do forever," said Weikel, of her first taste of the MAMA Project. This latest journey to Central America was Weikel's fourth.
A big champion of the MAMA Project, Weikel helps raise funds for the group throughout the region, and encountered a groundswell of support from her classmates when she talked about her work.
And so on March 9, Weikel and 12 of her peers (10 women and three men) flew south, each of them spending about $1,100 for a trip with decidedly different activities planned than most collegiate spring-break excursions.
"Our goal was to use our education in nutrition and health from West Chester in a practical way in the villages in Honduras to treat childhood malnutrition," Weikel said.
The 10 women spent most of their time working on Anthro 2005, a World Health Organization project that creates a database of childhood nutrition and growth in the region. Each morning they would leave the MAMA Nutrition Center in San Francisco de Yojoa and head out for a community, where they would set up a makeshift health clinic in a church, school, or any other available space.
"Reading about something in a textbook makes you aware of it, but going to a country, and being able to put a name and face to a disease really hits home," said Julia Gerhart, a 20-year-old sophomore from Hummelstown.
Gerhart and her coworkers would measure each child in a community, and plot their information into their database. If children were found to be shorter and weigh less than nearly all other youngsters of the same age and gender, MAMA Project staff would ask the mothers for permission to take the children back to the MAMA Nutrition Center for treatment.
The MAMA Nutrition Center can house about 20 families at a time, as the children are treated, and the parents are educated about sanitation and on how to utilize resources they have to grow food, so that economic downturns don't cause starvation.
The three men of the trip were assigned to cementing over the dirt floors in local houses, a practice that leads to more sanitary conditions.
"None of us had too much experience laying floors, so the first one was kind of messy, but by the end we had a nice system going," recounted Ryan Ford, a 23-year-old sophomore from Fleetwood, Pa.
"It makes you realize not to take for granted what you have here," said Ford. "When you see what other people are living with, and how content and happy they are, it puts things into perspective."