Students Lend a Hand. Community-outreach efforts gain popularity on college campuses
AMHERST, MASS. — MOST days 10-year-old Hoeun vies with seven brothers and sisters for attention, but for a few hours a week she's an only child. That's when she's with her ``companion,'' Karen Mah, a senior at Amherst College. The two spend time together ``just having fun'' - doing little things like taking walks or going to the mall. And getting to know each other. Ms. Mah says, ``Hoeun's really quiet, but she likes to talk about music. She's into Madonna. She could sing any top-40 song on the radio.'' The time they share means a lot to both of them. ``We were walking in town last week and Hoeun just grabbed my hand. That summed up a lot of things.''
Mah is involved in the Outreach program at Amherst College, an organization founded last year by students. Outreach plays the role of a social service clearinghouse, bringing together college volunteers with local community groups that can use their help.
Amherst is a college town. It's home to both the University of Massachusetts and Amherst College.
Students like Mah are trying to establish a deeper commitment to both the town and the surrounding community. For them, working hard in academics doesn't mean saving community service for later.
Behind the small-town fa,cade, Amherst and the neighboring towns of Hadley, Northampton, and Holyoke share some big-town problems: displaced families who have lost their homes, immigrants who don't speak English and have trouble with school, women fleeing hostile situations, and the forgotten elderly in nursing homes.
Under the auspices of Outreach, volunteers spend a couple of hours each week visiting residents of nursing homes (Adopt-a-Grandparent), tutoring young adults in English as a second language (Cambodian Refugee Tutoring), working with children in need of a role model (Amherst Companion Program), providing counseling at a women's center (Necessities/Necessitates), or meeting with hospital patients (VA Hospital Companion Program).
Peter Shearer, a student and director of Outreach, who grew up in Northampton, says: ``It's very easy to go through Amherst with the sense that your responsibility ends at the edge of campus. Even if you're just visiting for a few years, you're still a part of the community.''
David Kasunic, a co-founder of the program, adds that Outreach is a natural extension of the educational opportunities at Amherst. He stresses that community service, like any other subject at school, is a learning activity: ``Part of living is helping other people. If that has to be taught, it has to be taught. You can't assume that it's inherent.''
Besides the weekly programs, students participate in a number of one-time projects, such as spending a week working in homeless shelters in Philadelphia or New York.
Debbie Cohan is a junior at Amherst who volunteered in a Philadelphia shelter last year. ``Before you can really change anything, you have to understand the problem,'' she says.
It's that understanding that Outreach hopes to develop. Mr. Shearer says, ``It takes a great effort to volunteer. Often it's emotionally draining. Sometimes you question whether the effect you're having is worth the time you're giving. Commitments are hard to make. Outreach provides a support structure that reaffirms our belief in what we're doing.''
Student volunteerism is on the rise nationally. Two years ago the Monitor printed an article about Wayne Meisel, who traveled on his own from college to college in an effort to help students get involved in community volunteer service. Mr. Meisel then founded COOL - Campus Outreach Opportunity League.
COOL still serves as an umbrella organization for groups like Amherst's Outreach. Other affiliated programs include the Service Organizations of Smith, Dartmouth Community Services, and Georgetown's Volunteer and Public Service Center. In 1986, COOL was associated with programs at 70 colleges and universities. Today it is affiliated with more than 450. The office staff has doubled in the last year alone.
Sometimes volunteer students are seen as ``new campus radicals,'' throwbacks to an earlier generation. Shearer says, ``It's probably a valid term, but it's also used to put us in our place. We're perceived by others as idealistic youngsters, still looking to change the world. They think we'll grow out of that and learn about `reality.''' He believes that Outreach helps students redefine ``reality'' by making public service a part of their lives. ``Hooking people on volunteerism can be done by giving them positive experiences and showing them that they're part of a much larger community - a community of volunteers.''