A vacation that changes lives: Woods students help children during spring break

March 23rd, 2012 | SMWC

Stephanie Runyon was on the path to a relaxing spring break back home in Noblesville, Ind., hanging out with friends and enjoying home cooking. That was before she read an email with the subject line: “One spot left.”

Just like that, she knew that spot was hers.

Runyon, a junior studying secondary English education, along with 12 other students from Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College (SMWC), traded in the typical spring break rest and relaxation for a different kind of R&R: responsibility and relief. Traveling nearly 800 miles, the students trekked down to New Orleans, La., to jump-start the education of dozens of Head Start children for the College’s annual alternative spring break trip.

“If I only went to school to serve myself, then I wouldn't be giving back to others,” Runyon explained. “Community service allows me to impact the lives of others, receiving little back other than the knowledge that I made a difference.”

SMWC student Laura Kempton, a junior studying music therapy, helps a Head Start preschooler read one of her favorite books.

SMWC students spent their spring break, March 10-16, 2012, helping New Orleans Head Start teachers by cleaning rooms, monitoring children and setting up activities. They worked one-on-one with children by reading books, supervising play and getting directly involved in their activities.

“I loved reading Dr. Seuss books to them,” said Tiffany Marshall, a biology sophomore from Kingman, Ind. “Their favorite book was ‘Are You My Mother?’ They would all shout, ‘No, I’m not your mother,’ at the different parts. It was so adorable.”

Imagine working eight hours a day, herding dozens of 4-year-olds on a playground, helping them practice the alphabet and learn that tricky concept of sharing. Head Start, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “promotes school readiness by enhancing the social and cognitive development of children through educational, health, nutritional, social and other services.” Often, these low-income children come in with grumbling bellies, unwashed clothes and mysterious boo-boos. Students from The Woods got to more than just imagine this life; they got to live it.

“It was incredibly eye-opening,” said the trip’s organizer, Malia Hoffman, SMWC’s coordinator of campus ministry. “The students got to experience a different way of life and know that they can make a big difference even in just one week.” Some of the SMWC volunteers were education majors, but the trip was open to any student with a helping heart.

“This year I wanted to do something a little different than building houses or cleaning up parks,” Hoffman said. “I wanted them to learn that even if you don’t see immediate results, like when you rebuild a house, you are still making a difference.”

In the past, SMWC’s alternative spring break trips included Gulf coast cleanups, building homes and working in a soup kitchen in New York City. Cathleen Flynn, a music therapy junior from Mitchell, S.D., went on the New York trip two years ago and was excited to bond with her classmates again in New Orleans. “It gives me a sense of meaning to be a part of something bigger than myself,” she said. “Community service is empowering, both to the individuals who serve and to those in need.”

SMWC sophomore music therapy major Shelby Partin and junior education major Stephanie Runyon help teachers prepare materials for the Head Start students.

The students were amazed at how far New Orleans has come since Hurricane Katrina, yet also stunned at how much work is left. By working with the children in Head Start, the students are helping to rebuild something that lasts longer than buildings. They are rebuilding an educated community by inspiring future doctors, teachers and entrepreneurs. “I think that each positive experience we are a part of changes us,” Flynn said. “The children I worked with probably won’t remember me next month, but the compassion I extended in our time together won’t be lost.”

SMWC’s mission emphasizes service learning, both in and out of the classroom. Alternative spring break trips and volunteer opportunities in the community provide Woods students with a fulfillment beyond a bachelor’s degree.

“Our students spread the mission of The Woods by living it daily,” said Amanda Springstead, associate director of campus admission, who helped chaperone the New Orleans trip. “The warmth and kindness for one-another on campus can’t be contained here alone. This mission trip is just one example of how they help the community. It just seems to be in the nature of the place.”

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