Lehigh students often mentor and interact with local middle school students.
In an office cluttered with posters, slogans, notes, pictures, charts and sweatshirts to be worn by staffers at volunteer events, Carolina Hernandez heads up an operation that has grown by leaps and bounds since she first came to Lehigh seven years ago.
The former AmeriCorps VISTA member, Hernandez was assigned to Lehigh to expand the community service component. Hernandez dug in, pulled together a skeleton staff and quickly discovered a rich vein of social consciousness.
“Community service is a huge part of the Lehigh community,” says Hernandez. “I think more and more students are recognizing that it’s important to be actively involved and engaged in the South Bethlehem community, and beyond that. They recognize it is truly a partnership.”
That sense of shared direction is a distinguishing characteristic of Lehigh’s program, which now involves roughly 2,500 student volunteers each year, and resulted in nearly 50,000 hours of service devoted to the community last year alone.
Lehigh students work in soup kitchens, tutor local school children in afterschool programs, volunteer their time to create a haunted house for October’s “Spooktacular Event,” clean up walking trails, paint community murals, organize clothing drives and participate in the Lehigh springSERVE program, which is now recognized as a model for other schools.
In fact, says Hernandez, the student base is so active that she sometimes finds it difficult to track their involvement. “Right now, there are probably 40 students volunteering on the Southside,” she says.
A history of service
Like other administrators, Hernandez has found that most of the students who volunteer through her office have an already established pattern of community service. Many, she says, had positive and rewarding high school service experiences and wanted to continue it.
Lisa Neyhart ’09, a double major in international relations and political science from Mifflinburg, Pa., found that her first volunteer experience at Lehigh strengthened the commitment she felt during her high school years.
“I do community service because I do not take for granted that I am lucky,” she says. “I have never wondered where my next meal would come from or where I was going to sleep. As a member of a community, there is no reason that I shouldn't take advantage of my good fortune to do what I can to address the needs of my fellow community members.”
Ashley Pritchard ’09, a double major in political science and economics with a minor in engineering, drew on her experience as a soup kitchen volunteer on San Francisco’s Hemlock Alley. When she came to Lehigh, she said that she “knew that my interest in community service wouldn’t change and it would continue to be a huge part of my life. I just didn’t expect it to change me
Inspired by a quote from Ghandi that suggests “the best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service to others,” she began volunteering during her first year at Lehigh. Now a community service office student coordinator in Hernandez’s office, Pritchard helps to oversee the vast network of student-to-community activities.
Just a sampling of last year’s accomplishments include the following:
• There were 60 participants who gave up their vacation break time to volunteer through one of Lehigh’s springSERVE trips for a combined 2,400 hours of service.
• 102 students, trained and certified by the Internal Revenue Service, spent 320 hours assisting South Bethlehem residents file tax returns, saving the local community $13,560 in accounting fees.
• The community service office served 792 meals this past year at our local soup kitchens.
• 951 local schoolchildren attended at least one event on campus last year.
• 229 pints of blood were donated this past year.
“It is incredibly exciting to see this participation,” Pritchard says.
For Hernandez, the key is responding to community needs rather than foisting the students’ interest on the residents.
“We have to be aware of the community needs and help them meet it,” Hernandez says, “Lehigh is a huge part of the community and it is important to be actively involved and engaged as partners, and it is important for community to feel support.”
Every proposed activity contains five critical elements in order for her office to support it: community voice, orientation, meaningful action, reflection, and evaluation.
“This sort of thoughtful process is unique to our office,” she says. “To maximize the power of being able to make a difference, we think in terms of do-able, meaningful action. There are always needs in a community—you just have to listen to what it is and then help them meet it.”
Ultimately, she adds, her office functions to move students along what she refers to as a “spectrum of service,” which nurtures the spirit of civic involvement to mold students into active citizens by the time they graduate.
“When they leave Lehigh, they can take that sense of commitment with them,” she says. “And with that, they can go back to their own communities and continue to impact them in a positive way.”
Photo by Douglas Benedict