“Hang the pictures at gallery neutral.”
“I’ll show you how to pocket a ball.”
“¿Tiene algún recurso para hispanohablantes?”
Say these sentences to a group of average Americans, and they will probably give blank looks in return. Last April, Mississippi University for Women students Emma Beeler, Santania Thompson and Ali Glasgow might also have given blank looks.
But all that has changed now.
The three young women have learned the meanings of these statements and much more because of the work they are doing through MUW’s newly created Summer Community Engagement Program.
They are three of the 12 Nancy Yates Fellows, part of an MUW Honors College program launched this year. The program was funded by a donation made by W alumnus Nancy Yates, and the Fellows have committed to serving at Columbus-based nonprofits for at least 32 hours per week for the duration of the six-week program.
That’s why Beeler, a Fellow with the Columbus Arts Council, now knows that “gallery neutral” means the center of every image is at the same height on the wall.
It’s why Santania Thompson, a Fellow with the Columbus Community Housing Development Organization, has learned to play pool — thanks to the elderly resident she works with daily.
And it’s how Ali Glasgow, a Fellow with Columbus-Lowndes Public Library, knows that Spanish-speaking Columbus residents are looking to the library for help with their English skills.
The perfect match for their commitment
The program may have just launched this year, but its focus is far from new, according to Kim Whitehead, director of the Ina E. Gordy Honors College at MUW.
“The Honors College has for years stressed the importance of offering high-impact experiences to students, and we’ve been offering community engagement classes for years,” Whitehead said. “So when the Yates family was looking for an opportunity to provide to students … it was a perfect match for our commitment.”
Whitehead also sees the program as a continuation and deepening of community partnerships.
“We had existing partnerships with nonprofit organizations like the Boys and Girls Club, the YMCA and the library,” she said.
“So we started there and reached out to other groups as well. Some of them, like Sunshine Stables, are newer nonprofits we didn’t know existed when we started this.”
Likewise, the students involved in the program were matched with their nonprofit partners based on their personal commitments and passions.
“When we filled in our applications, we could check all the areas we were interested in,” Beeler said. “There was also an essay component, where we gave skills and interests and explained what we hoped to gain from the opportunity.”
“But really, the W is a small university, and the people on the committee who made the matching decisions know us pretty well. They knew what we enjoy and would be good at.”
For Beeler — who exclaimed that she loves history and watches documentaries for fun — that meant being matched to the Arts Council, where her duties change daily.
“I’ve done a fair amount of filing and sorting and data entry, but I’ve also helped with taking down and putting up exhibits,” Beeler said. “I’ve done just a little bit of everything.”
Thompson was matched with the local housing authority. She works with an elderly resident in the mornings and afternoons, playing games, working on crafts, and exercising alongside her. In between times, she works with the summer camp program, helping corral 30 or more children daily.
“I wanted to work with the Columbus Housing Authority because I grew up in public housing. This is my way of giving back to a community I grew up in,” Thompson said.
Glasgow, too, has ties to her community partner, the Columbus-Lowndes Public Library.
“I am a little biased because my mom directs a library,” she said. “And I’ve always been interested in youth literacy.”
Leaving things a little better than they found them
But just because they were paired based on common interests doesn’t mean they are willing to stay where they are. Neither the students nor their community partners are content with maintaining the status quo.
Clara Ortega, Adult Services coordinator, is one of several library employees supervising Glasgow this summer. She said Glasgow has helped her brainstorm program ideas.
“She is full of ideas. She has ESL (English as a second language) programming ideas and ideas for songwriting and videography workshops,” Ortega said. “As a community service, we need the views of lots of people, including people who aren’t usually library patrons. That perspective helps us out.”
Likewise, Debra Taylor, executive director for Columbus Housing Authority, said Thompson’s presence has been motivational.
“Her outgoing personality has been an inspiration,” Taylor said.
And Columbus Arts Center theatre director Shane Kinder said Beeler has offered a certain calm to the center.
“There is a lot of peace in knowing I can tell her something or show her how to do something one time, walk away, and know she’s got it,” Kinder said.
The students will never be the same, either.
Glasgow has realized that service should be based more on what the recipient truly needs rather than on what the giver wants to offer.
“I realized my giving had been more about the giving rather than bringing in those who use or need the services. It’s nice to meet with patrons and find out what they need,” Glasgow said. “It’s about bringing them to the table.”
“I would encourage more people to get involved in Columbus,” she said. “That’s the only way Columbus will get better, is if everyone really understands what service is.”
Other Yates Fellows are as follows:
Karina Garcia and Kaitlyn George, serving with the Boys & Girls Club of Columbus,
Kaitlyn Lowe, serving with the Catch-A-Dream Foundation,
Faith Langford, serving Columbus Cultural Heritage Foundation,
Shirli Salihaj, serving with Columbus-Lowndes Habitat for Humanity,
Kaitlyn Lewis, serving with Columbus-Lowndes Humane Society,
Charity James, serving with the Salvation Army of Columbus,
Katie Summer, serving with Sunshine Stables, and
Chesne Joyner, serving with YMCA.
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