When Mike Chu ’10 volunteered six years ago at the neighborhood YMCA in Rochester, N.Y., his goal was to fill his high school’s community service requirement and possibly turn the head of a college admissions counselor.
The experience had an extra, unexpected and wonderful benefit as Chu ended up being bitten by the service-to-others bug.
"I was part of the YMCA’s child-care staff and it was great working with the kids," recalls Chu. "The kids were so happy that you took the time to be interested in them. The parents were so grateful to have their kids in a safe and fun environment and to be able to use that time to work out at the Y themselves or to get some things done.
"I realized that giving something so small—a little bit of my time—could make a big difference."
Chu has continued to serve others at Lehigh. Since meeting Carolina Hernandez, director of the Community Service Office, shortly after he arrived on campus as a freshman, Chu has become a fixture in the office.
His commitment won’t take a break this weekend. Rather than head north to Rochester to chill out with his family over pacing break, he will drive south down I-95 with five other students—graduate student Brittany Grimaldi ’09 as well as Laura Banos ’10, Zach Carter ’11, Elizabeth Miller ’10 and Elizabeth Lucas ’13—for a Washington, D.C., SERVE trip.
As coordinator of this year’s SERVE trips, Chu has planned every detail of this excursion—researching and deciding which nonprofit organizations in our nation’s capital the Lehigh students should help, putting together the budget, organizing transportation and housing for students in D.C. He also advertised the SERVE trip to Lehigh’s student body, interviewed interested candidates, and decided which students would go.
SERVE trips, which are sponsored through the Community Service Office, are designed to enable students to spend school breaks helping others. More than 300 students have taken part in the SERVE program since it was established in 1995.
The program will continue throughout the current academic year with winterSERVE, slated for January 9-16; springSERVE, scheduled for March 6-13; and summerSERVE from May 15-22. The locations of these trips have not yet been determined.
"Coordinating these SERVE trips is a lot of responsibility, but Mike has handled things well because he’s a hard worker, he’s organized and he’s proven throughout his three-plus years here at Lehigh that he’s truly committed to helping others," says Hernandez.
The four-day SERVE trip to Washington, D.C., will combine community service activities with educational opportunities. When they arrive on Oct. 3, the students will visit the National Coalition for the Homeless, where they will hear firsthand the stories of two former homeless people.
"What better way to gain a better understanding of the homeless situation in this country," says Chu, "than to hear the stories from people themselves."
After getting better educated about the homeless problem, Chu and his crew will spend the next three days helping the homeless by cooking and serving meals in D.C. soup kitchens along with members of an organization called So Others Might Eat. On their final day, the Lehigh contingent will volunteer at the Capitol Area Food Bank, helping organize and keep an inventory of all the food on hand.
"Having an up-to-date inventory will enable them to better serve all the organizations that they help," says Chu.
After their work at the Capitol Area Food Bank is done, the group will head back to Lehigh for the start of classes next Wednesday.
"These trips are so rewarding," says Chu. "You learn about yourself, you meet new people, you build leadership and team-building skills and you make a difference in other people’s lives.
"I can’t think of a better way to spend my pacing break."
Livin’ La Vida Lehigh
The D.C. SERVE Trip is one in a series of activities that the Community Service Office has planned this month. Two other events—Livin’ La Vida Lehigh on Oct. 10 and Spooktacular on Oct. 25—are geared toward expanding service opportunities for Lehigh students and forging stronger ties with the local community.
Livin’ La Vida Lehigh, now in its fifth year, is a program in which Lehigh invites middle-school students from four Bethlehem area middle schools—Broughal, Northeast, Nitschmann and East Hills—to live on campus for a day as a college student. The middle-school kids take a class with chemistry professor Keith Schray, eat in the cafeteria, visit places ranging from a dorm room to Linderman Library, and even perform their own community-service project.
"The goal of this program is to get area middle-school school kids to change their mindset from if I go to college to when I go to college," says Brittany Powers ’09, a graduate student in special education who is advising the student coordinators, John Lalomio ’10 and Stephanie Lin ’12, on Livin’ La Vida Lehigh.
Hernandez concurs. "Exposing South Bethlehem children to campus life and to our students is important, because it makes the concept of college real to them, not just something that other people do."
Spooktacular, which will celebrate its eighth anniversary later this month, routinely attracts more than 250 South Bethlehem children and their families to campus for an afternoon of frighteningly good fun.
Student groups began working with Hernandez’s office three weeks ago to submit proposals for organizational themes and proposed activities. After meeting with the event’s student coordinator, Marc Palmer ’10, a mechanical engineering major from Brewster, N.Y., final decisions will be made and the work will begin.
The goal is to create the most engaging and innovative series of events and activities for the children, and to involve as many Lehigh volunteers as possible.
"Spooktacular is one of the most well-attended local community events of the year, along with the annual Spring Fling," says Hernandez. "Marc is doing a great job of planning a fun day for South Side families, and the student clubs and organizations seem to be clearly dedicated and committed to providing great activities for the children."