I walked into a meeting room at Family Support Center’s Pear Blossom Place on a Saturday morning in April, at the invitation of Susan Leyster and John Hopkins. Susan is the director of service immersion programs at Saint Martin’s University and John is the associate dean of students. Together, they are responsible for heading up the University’s Service Immersion Programs. These programs focus on encouraging students to actively incorporate community service into their University experience.
As I entered, John and Susan were leading a debrief with eight of fifteen students who had participated in an “urban plunge” at Pear Blossom Place. According to Susan, the location is “Thurston County’s largest 24-hour emergency homeless family shelter, which includes seven permanent affordable supportive housing units with on-site supportive services.” Their group had spent twenty hours on-site, including an overnight, alongside the families staying there. Through conversations with residents and staff, students learned about the many reasons families might need transitional and permanent housing support.
Susan shared that trips like this, and those to support Boys & Girls Club of Thurston County, Hands On Children’s Museum, Olympia Union Gospel Mission, various agencies in the Yakima Valley and Saint André Bessette Catholic Church and Blanchet House in Portland, OR make a significant impact on students, providing them with first-hand knowledge of the issues facing people in need of services. “This knowledge is paired with social justice learning of systemic causes of poverty and Catholic social teachings of solidarity, dignity of persons and options for the poor.”
During the debrief at Pear Blossom, students took the opportunity to discuss what they had learned during their intimate experience. “Reflection is a major part of the experience,” Susan shared and I witnessed this reflection in the thoughtful insights students shared. One student, who is working toward a degree in social work, shared “Doing this helps me understand that I never know what’s going on for someone I may be working with, so I need to be patient, be trauma-informed and know that maybe today’s not the best day to talk to someone and we can reschedule. I can learn better ways to be an advocate for someone.”
Chantal Arevalo, who is planning on becoming a teacher, saw how what’s going on outside of school can negatively impact a student’s ability to learn and thrive. “I [want teachers to] create a classroom that makes students feel safe and secure and able to express themselves the way that they need. I hope we can really make a change in the way we treat our students, the way we see education and the role it plays, because it really is like a mini picture of our society and we do so much to be complicit in it as teachers. When you’re in your classroom, you have such a huge impact with how you treat your students and what you say, so I want to keep learning how I can do that effectively.”
Abbigail Shirk, Family Justice Center program manager at the Family Support Center, was on hand during the debrief and she reinforced these sentiments. “The opposite of hope is apathy,” she explains. “A student who’s not engaged in your classroom, their head laying on their desk – that’s apathy. That’s when they no longer can see how things could be different. As a hope-centered agency, we are trying to create pathways and support each person’s agency – understanding their value to themselves, their family, their community and improving that resilience for them to believe in themselves and move forward. Substance abuse and mental health will impact that as well.”
Morgan Olson, a junior and social work major at Saint Martin’s has been a student leader in the program for the last two years. “The service we do leans towards meeting people with dignity and respect and coming together in a common space to listen and share experiences,” she explained. “Many of our programs through the SMU service immersion program dig into the values of community and respect for people. Being able to spend the night at Pear Blossom gives great insight into the real and current issues that families are experiencing every day in Thurston County.” Morgan goes on to share how the children at Pear Blossom were excited to show the Saint Martin’s students around, sharing favorite toys and showing a real ownership of place. The families there had developed a sense of community and support living together.
“Through my experience with the Urban Plunge and interning for the Family Justice Center under The Family Support Center, I have learning a tremendous amount about the issues and barriers between families and services,” she explains. “We need to educate ourselves on these issues that lay in our own backyard so we can become a better community.”
I’ve been working in the non-profit and social justice field for twenty years, most recently as the Development Director at SideWalk and the Grants & Marketing Manager at GRuB, so I know firsthand what the need in our community looks like, as well as the dedication it takes to immerse oneself in service work. Given that, it was incredibly uplifting to see a group of young people so engaged in work that actively supports local social service agencies.
By joining Saint Martin’s service immersion programs, the next generation of leaders get to participate in year-round hands-on service trips and internships locally, nationally and internationally to benefit and learn more about marginalized and under-served populations.
The program operates with the ideal that “student exposure to other cultures, places and ways of life enhance the lives and perspectives of our students who participate, and of those they serve. It is a chance for our students to experience a new view on life, to learn from those we serve, and to learn more about ourselves.”
Saint Martin’s service immersion programs are open to all current and incoming students, with a commitment to participation for the remainder of their time at the University. First-year students who are accepted to the Norcia Leadership Community and Residence Hall will automatically be enrolled in the program.