April 27, 2014 Updated: April 27, 2014 at 5:01 pm
When most of the Air Force Academy's 4,400 cadets were off to beaches, ski destinations or hometowns, 65 volunteered to spend their spring break building homes for families in need.
For more than a decade, academy cadets have been giving up their spring break to give back to communities around the country, helping Habitat for Humanity build affordable housing.
This year, cadets fanned out to Gardena, California; Taos, New Mexico; Houston, Texas; Spokane, Washington; and Kalispell, Montana.
The program is part of a nationwide collegiate effort in coordination with Habitat for Humanity, said senior cadet Chelsea Renfro of Quinlan, Texas.
Renfro, who spent five years as an enlisted airman before coming to the academy, is the cadet leader for the school's alternate spring break program.
She said she began putting together her staff of two juniors and three sophomores in October to help plan this year's event
"The military gets so much from the community," she said. "Even when I was deployed, people I didn't know were sending me care packages.
"This program is important because it provides an avenue for cadets that want to give back - to give back without costing them money."
While Renfro was moving 1,000 sheets of drywall in Gardena, California, junior cadet Sarah Folse was putting up fences in Houston, Texas.
"I love it. This is my third year in the program," Folse said.
"I'm from New Orleans and after Katrina, I remember seeing the groups come in to help rebuild," she said. "They gave to my community, and I'm going to give back."
The cadets drive government vehicles to each location and Habitat for Humanity provides lodging, which is usually a church floor for the five days they are on the job, Renfro said.
The academy conducts a safety briefing for the cadets prior to their departure, Folse said, and Habitat for Humanity provides all necessary protective gear and experts on-site to guide the cadets' labor.
Both Renfro and Folse said they were fortunate to meet at least one of the beneficiaries of the housing they were helping to build.
"What really struck me about the program is that each family has to put in a certain number of sweat equity hours in order to get their house," Folse said. "That makes it their home."
The alternate spring break and other volunteer programs are part of cadet service learning from the Academy's Center for Character and Leadership Development.
The Center boasted more than 38,000 hours of community service during the academy's last academic year.