When University of Central Florida senior Shelby Olson leaves for Costa Rica next week, it won’t be for a typical spring break vacation.

Olson and eight other students will travel to San Miguel de Sarapiqui to volunteer on an organic coffee farm and work with children at three primary schools as part of UCF’s Alternative Break Program.

The program sends teams of students around the country—and for the first time this year, international—to engage in community service and learn about social issues as they grow as individuals and impact lives.

“I think it’s important for students to be involved with service, no matter whether it is a week-long experience or a day-long experience,” said Olson. “Taking a week to do something for others is a great way to learn about yourself and reflect on what you want out of your future.”

Olson, who is active in community service through Volunteer UCF, created a partnership with the organization Dressed in Hope, which sews handmade dresses and dolls for impoverished young girls. Through the partnership, students on Olson’s trip will donate dresses prepared at October’s Knights Give Back campus service day to the girls in Costa Rica. The students have also collected soccer balls for the young boys.

The Alternative Break Program offers a variety of volunteer opportunities during spring and winter breaks and a long weekend in the fall. This year, there are 12 spring break trips.

  • The Center for the Great Apes (Wauchula): Students will volunteer in a sanctuary for orangutans and chimpanzees.
  • Different Abilities – Parkwood Farms (Snellville, Ga.): Students will help people with mental, physical, emotional and learning disabilities through a therapeutic horseback riding program.
  • Environmental Conservation – Reef Relief (Key West): Students will work with various sites and projects to protect the natural marine resources of the Florida Keys and educate others about the coral reef habitat.
  • Human Rights/Criminal Justice – Shelby County Jail (Memphis, Tenn.): Students will be paired with counselors from the Shelby County Jail, attend disciplinary hearings and sit in on discussions about the inmates’ hardships.
  • Hunger & Homelessness – Decatur Cooperative Ministry (Decatur, Ga.): Students will interact with and assist families and children who are homeless.
  • Education & Literacy – Teach for America: Students will work with Teach for America teachers to create a fun and exciting classroom curriculum for the week.
  • Environment/Recreational – Cumberland Trails (Hamilton County, Tenn.): Students will construct hiking trails for visitors to walk through.
  • Disaster Relief – His Hands 2 Go (New Orleans, La.): Students will help reconstruct houses and create a community garden to help New Orleans recover from the devastation of hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Gustav.
  • Animals/Environment – UM Dunlap Research (Miami): Students will gain hands-on experience through the University of Miami’s marine life conservation program.
  • Farming/Education (San Miguel de Sarapiqui, Costa Rica): Students will work on an organic coffee farm and assist in primary schools.
  • The Burnett Honors College – Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge (Vero Beach): Students will work on environmental projects and participate in activities in bird surveying, sea turtle season, the butterfly garden and beach mice projects.
  • LEAD Scholars – Urban Farming/Animals (New Orleans, La.): Students will work with the Latinos Farmers Cooperative to assist with urban farming and gardening.
  • Each trip includes eight participants, one student site leader and a faculty advisor. Students must apply for the programs online and attend group and individual interviews.

    Several students are repeat volunteers, including Alternative Break Program Director Sammantha Pendergast.

    “I fell in love with the ideas and potential the program had to offer,” said Pendergast, a senior who will make her third trip next week. “Students gain a deeper understanding of the various social issues that surround us on a daily basis. They become empowered to raise awareness and provide higher quality care to the community.”

    For more information about the Alternative Break Program, visit http://osi.ucf.edu/abp/.