When Richard Stockton College offered to provide Volunteer Crisis Advocacy training during the annual spring break this week they expected at most 25 or 30 students to sign up to for the week-long course on how to help victims of abuse.

Instead 65 students arrived on Monday, ready to spend their week off from classes tackling the tough cycle of physical and psychological abuse and how it can be broken.

“I’m just so excited to see students here,” said Erin O’Hanlon, coordinator of community initiatives for the Atlantic County Women’s Center, who taught the training. “I think there is an assumption that we’ve moved past domestic abuse. But it is still a part of the community.”

While many students travel south for a week of sand, sun and partying, so-called “alternative spring breaks” that focus on organized student-driven community service are growing in popularity. The Women’s Center program was one of two options offered at Stockton. Another 30 students traveled to North Carolina where they are helping build a home for Habitat for Humanity.

While the programs may get some assistance from the colleges, most are student organized and financed through bake sales and other fundraisers.

Daniel Tome, coordinator of service learning at Stockton, said he hopes to develop more such programs to give students a chance to implement some of the skills they are learning in their communities.

“These are programs they can use in their lives,” he said.

Many of the students in the crisis advocacy training are majoring in social work, psychology or criminal justice.

Criminal justice major Robert McDowell, of Galloway Township, said the program is giving him information he can use in a future career.

Social work major Sophia Johnson, of Mays Landing, said she wants to give a voice to abuse victims.

Student Candice Greeley, of Egg Harbor Township, brought her mother, Mary, who has worked with abuse victims as a youth counselor at Mission Point Church in Somers Point.

“I just love people, care about people and want to help people,” said psychology major Gwen Waples, an Atlantic City native now living in Sicklerville.

A few have had experience with domestic violence, either themselves or through a family member or friend. Computer sciences major Elizabeth Kang, of Marlboro, Monmouth County, said she is a child abuse survivor. Now a resident assistant at Stockton, she said she wants to teach others how to prevent abuse.

The training program was developed with Stockton’s Wellness Center, the Women and Gender Studies program. Nathan Morell, assistant director of counseling services at the Stockton Wellness Center, said they do see students with relationship issues at the center, and while they are rarely abusive, college students are at a crucial stage in their lives between adolescence and adulthood where how they handle relationships can affect their futures. College is typically their first time living away from home and forming new relationships.

A 2010 New Jersey State Police report on domestic violence found more than 74,200 domestic violence offenses were reported that year, or about one every seven minutes. Thirty-eight cases resulted in murder and 42 percent included assaults. Females were victims in 75 percent of the cases and 15 percent arose from a dating relationship. Children were involved or present in 31 percent.

The workshop included videos, discussions and delved into the cycle of domestic abuse and why it can be difficult to stop.

“It’s been really fun for me to see the students thinking about complex issues,” Morell said. “This is a way for them to talk about these issues out in the open, then take them back to their friends. As advocates they can reach people I may not see.”

The programs can also have long-term effects.

Nick Sena and Andrew Tobin were Stockton roommates when they organized the first Habitat for Humanity trip to West Virginia in 2006 as a way to help others and still go away on spring break. Sena is now the Leadership Annual Giving Coordinator at Stockton and Tobin is in the U.S. Army, currently serving in Afghanistan. Tobin this year donated $200 toward a new alumni fund to help finance alternative spring break programs.

“That first year was a lot of work,” said Sena, who has remained active with Habitat for Humanity. “We wanted to go away somewhere, but we also wanted to give back. It was a way for a group of friends to go somewhere, have fun and help others.”

Contact Diane D'Amico:

609-272-7241