This article is a guest post by Kathryn Pluta and Meredith Doyle, Director of the Center for Service-Learning.
In Kansas, one in every ten people is food insecure, meaning they do not know where their next meal will come from. Approximately 1,634 people are in need of food assistance in Atchison alone. Benedictine College’s service-learning courses, whereby students partner with nonprofits to address local needs while also learning more about the topics discussed in class, introduce Ravens to fellow community members experiencing these difficult realities. While the students’ involvement typically only lasts for the duration of the course – that is, for one semester – the intention is that these experiences will deepen their commitment to life-long service wherever they land after graduation. That long-term ripple effect is not absent in the Atchison community itself though – one service-learning event that took place four years ago continues to make a local impact every day.
In March 2018, four Benedictine students who were enrolled in the service-learning Education course, School as Community, were organizing a “Hunger Walk.” They had spent upwards of forty hours that semester tutoring in local schools, helping with afterschool programs, delivering meals to families struggling to make ends meet, and more. Now, as a sort of culminating project for the course, it was their turn to look around the community, identify a need, and initiate a response. The four students wanted to dedicate their project to the real problem of hunger in Atchison. To that end, they invited Ravens and Atchisonians to come together to walk a designated path in town, holding signs with statistics about food insecurity and soliciting donations of nonperishable food items. Dr. Christi Adams, associate professor and current chair of the Benedictine School of Education, helped the students organize the Walk. She tends to have realistic yet also tremendously hopeful expectations for these kinds of events: “I don’t know how much projects like the Hunger Walk change the community, but I do know that they change individuals.” Happily, the individuals changed are not just the students or even the clients of the nonprofits where they serve.
Atchison resident, Kelly Thompson, had seen fliers for the Hunger Walk around Atchison. She was intrigued and decided to attend. Thompson had always harbored a particular place in her heart for the hungry, but participating in the Walk moved her in a new way. She found herself filled with a sense of mission and started regularly volunteering at the Atchison office of Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas. Later, when the Administrative Assistant position opened up, she applied and got the job. That she has found her calling is evidenced by the joy on her face when you talk with her today. Her eyes sparkle as she shares her goals for expanding the location in order to better serve the community. Her passion for caring for others, and especially for making sure people are fed, remains a perpetual inspiration to her, even on hard days when she is overwhelmed by human suffering and the problems of the world. Thompson’s experience gives witness to Adams’ observation about Hunger Walks changing individuals. At the same time, her daily impact in her current role suggests that the lines between individual change and community change are often beautifully blurry. To Ravens who want to serve but don’t know where to begin, Thompson advises: “Every little act can make a difference.” Afterall, it was one simple service-learning event that motivated her to dedicate her life to full-time service of those in need.