A group of 50 UC Irvine students skipped the beach and Las Vegas during spring break to instead do volunteer work in California and Arizona. Their experiences were diverse, but the goal was the same: to give back to people and places that needed the most help.

They traveled to Joshua Tree National Park to restore a region ravaged by fire and remove invasive plant species; the Imperial Valley desert to place water tanks in areas crossed by immigrants; a community center in Phoenix to plan activities for low-income children and seniors; the La Jolla Indian Reservation to plant a community garden, pick up trash and paint over graffiti; and South Los Angeles to provide administrative support in a home for formerly incarcerated women.

UC Irvine’s alternative break program was started in 2003 by several undergraduates who spent the weeklong spring vacation volunteering at Orange County nonprofits. The various projects are now planned and organized by interns at the campus’s Cross-Cultural Center.

“These trips are a way for students to live out their passions through service,” says Darlene Esparza, the center’s assistant director. “They come in with an idea, and we work with them to make it happen.”

Amanda Coats, a fourth-year English major, led 10 “alt breakers” in Joshua Tree National Park. Sleeping under the stars in the Indian Cove campground was a novel experience for many of them.

“The park is very accessible for people who are new to camping,” says Coats, an outdoor enthusiast and longtime camper. “It offers great environmental projects and has a really interesting history. Native Americans lived here; it was a mining and farming area.… It’s the perfect place to witness the relationship between the environment and civilization.”

The group aided in the restoration of Keys View, badly damaged in a 2010 wildfire. Over three days, the students installed 150 native shrubs. They also helped park rangers remove invasive species from the Pinto Basin, scanning the ground for plants such as the ubiquitous Sahara mustard.

The Cross-Cultural Center’s alternative break program is intended to raise student awareness of social as well as environmental issues. And this year’s trip to the Escondido headquarters of Water Station did just that.

Founded in 2000 after the heat-related deaths of 29 Mexican immigrants, the humanitarian nonprofit places 18-gallon water tanks in strategic locations around the Imperial Valley and Anza-Borrego deserts. It operates with permits from the Bureau of Land Management and is known to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park rangers, Border Patrol agents and other legal authorities.

The UC Irvine volunteers watched a documentary about the organization and traveled to the desert to refill tanks and inspect them for vandalism.

“I think the students really enjoyed the experience, and we enjoyed having them here,” says Laura Hunter, who runs Water Station with her husband, David. “I told them, ‘It’s up to you to change any situation that you don’t like. Speak up and do something. Don’t stand there waiting for something to happen. Make it happen.’”

The UC Irvine alt breakers also went to the Carl Hayden Community Center in Phoenix, where they led Zumba classes for senior citizens and facilitated tutoring and sports programs for kids. Alejandro Muro, a fourth-year Chicano/Latino studies major, organized the effort.

“We learned about Arizona’s approach to immigration, which many people criticize for its emphasis on racial profiling, while being confronted by the fact that people are literally dying to come to this country,” he says.

It was an enriching experience for all involved, Muro adds: “This trip was about community service and students from different majors and backgrounds learning from one another and forming lifelong friendships.”