April 20, 2014

College Expands Community Service Options

College Expands Community Service Options
Photo by Stephanie Boyman
October 5, 2012

Engaging in meaningful service to a community is not just about “doing good.” It’s also about expanding and deepening one’s understanding of how society functions and supports the well-being of individuals and their communities.

Since 1999, under the direction of Robert Pennamon, the College’s Community Service Program (CSP) has been transformed from a series of occasional activities into an integral component demonstrating value across academic disciplines—and in athletics, too. In approaching his work, Mr. Pennamon finds inspiration in Mrs. Eddy’s words: “In love for man we gain the only and true sense of love for God, practical good . . .” (The First Church of Christ, Scientist, and Miscellany, p. 287).

In the next academic year, participation in community service will become a graduation requirement for all majors in the Sociology and Anthropology Department. Already, the Education Department requires four community service experiences to broaden its majors’ understanding of human diversity. Many coaches require or encourage community projects for their athletes. And now, several study abroad programs include service opportunities overseas.

Community service gives students a “unique opportunity to demonstrate their understanding of Christian Science,” says Pennamon. “The biggest benefit [is that service] enables them to come out of their comfort zone, overcome a sense of fear so that they can be a presence in the community, and discover real purpose.”

Coordinating all of this is no small task. After identifying service needs among social welfare and community empowerment institutions in greater Alton and St. Louis, Pennamon strives “to be available—and flexible” in helping students and departments find the right fit with the right opportunity. CSP has established links with local organizations such as the Pere Marquette Illinois Youth Center in Grafton; the St. Louis International Institute, which provides services to immigrants and refugees; the Oasis Shelter for Battered Women in Alton; Riverbender.com Community Center, which coordinates a middle school tutoring/mentoring program in Alton; and the Jerseyville Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Jerseyville.

Community service can take the form of one-time activities or projects, or it can be a more structured learning activity that requires sustained effort over the course of a semester. The athletic teams often carry out service projects during pre-season training, helping to build team spirit while delivering valued support. The men’s soccer and women’s basketball programs regularly run clinics for disadvantaged youth. And this past August, the cross-country and volleyball teams helped out at Peace Haven, a Christian Science nursing facility, and at the Center for American Archeology (CAA) in Kampsville, Illinois. In a letter, CAA wrote, “We offer a rousing chorus of ‘THANK YOU!’ for a job well done . . . . [and] willingness to brave dirt, spiders, soap suds, green paint (and a decided lack of glamour) in support of our program and facility.”

Last spring break, the student-run Community Service Team Club (for which Pennamon serves as sponsor and advisor) assisted with cleanup projects in tornado-hit Joplin, Missouri. The club also recruits students for Mississippi River cleanups, road debris pickups, horse barn cleaning, and clothes-sorting projects at non-profit resale shops.

In an effort to introduce an academic component to the volunteer experience, Pennamon is working with several departments to institute not only local but national and international service learning projects that are linked to specific course content. For example, one year the Social Stratification class helped survey a number of East St. Louis homeless shelters and a soup kitchen and then compiled the data using SPSS software. This information was then provided to the Department of Housing and Urban Development as a means of securing funding for St. Clair County homeless organizations.

A few years ago, at Pennamon’s urging, Political Science Professor John Williams included various service options in the 2008 China Abroad—teaching conversational English at two universities, training Beijing Olympic volunteers, and serving at a kindergarten, a special-needs orphanage, and a middle school. This fall, Business Administration Professor Linda Bohaker has identified an opportunity to work on a homeless project on the Japan Abroad. And in the spring, Spanish Professor Cecily Lee’s students will undertake community service projects on the Peru Abroad.