Students Engage with Local Community Through Academics, Service

Students Engage with Local Community Through Academics, Service

By Callie Owensby
7/1/2020 5:00:00 AM

Outreach and community involvement have always been core values of John Brown University. At its founding, the university had ties to a variety of ministries: Mission Points, Campus Crusade and Child Evangelism Fellowship, to name a few. Today, the head, heart and hand training philosophy of JBU encourages students to serve the local community during their time in Siloam Springs and elsewhere following graduation. Through courses, volunteer opportunities and campus ministries, students are equipped to live out what they are learning by meeting specific needs in the community.

As part of new student orientation each fall, freshman and transfer students have the opportunity to put their hands to use serving the community. Serve Siloam sends out 300-400 new students, along with faculty and staff, to nonprofit organizations, churches and community members in need to do practical, hands-on work such as weeding flower beds, raking leaves, painting, sorting donations at the food bank or cleaning up parks.

Sarah Erdman, coordinator of orientation, notes, “It’s a fantastic project and we have community members and nonprofits that look forward to it every year. It’s the new students’ favorite event during orientation.”

COVID-19 protocols made it necessary to adjust several things about orientation this year, including Serve Siloam. Instead of carrying out service projects, students were provided materials to write notes of encouragement or gratitude to people in the community – teachers, first responders and the hard-working facilities staff at JBU.

Academic Involvement
More than an essential part of intellectual growth, many classes have a community-centered element that bridges the gap between learning from books and lectures and getting the hands-on piece of student education that is part of JBU’s mission.

Construction management majors stand in front of the tiny home they builtConstruction management students work on a variety of projects throughout the community for individual homeowners, businesses and nonprofit organizations. The projects might include everything from building a backyard storage unit to building an entire home. Some projects, like the bird watching habitat built in 2019 at City Lake in partnership with Siloam Springs and Ozark Ecological Restoration, are enjoyed by thousands of people.

East Kentwood Baptist Church and Genesis House, an organization dedicated to helping individuals break the cycle of homelessness, partnered together to develop what the church is calling “Project Launch Pad,” a community of four tiny homes located on the church property. The tiny homes aid homeless families by providing 90 days of transitional housing to help them reestablish themselves in the community. JBU construction management students, as a part of their class, worked on different house designs. Parameters of the design included an area under 500 square feet, the ability to house up to six people, a modern look that would blend in with the church and surrounding community and basic 

appliances. JBU students designed a 490-square-foot home with two bedrooms and one bathroom that can house a family of six. Rick Faust, associate professor of the construction management department, said the project is a great example of JBU’s community impact as the homes enable persons coming out of homelessness to transition to a more stable lifestyle.

Sometimes, it’s a class research project that provides a student with the opportunity to examine what it means to love one’s neighbor. Senior Seth Billingsley’s research project on the effects of the pandemic and the USDA’s food security program resulted in such an opportunity. Billingsley, a political science major, noted, “The spirit of this project is this: how did communities of faith respond to the needs of their neighbors, and did race play a role? I hope to find that people all worked together!”

In the nursing department, there is a community outreach component where JBU partners with the Siloam Springs School District (SSSD) for the fall Panther Health Fair that provides health education to the community; the Boys and Girls Club to provide after-school health education; and Oaks Indian Mission to plan events for children living at the mission.

Nursing students are required to log 20 volunteer hours per semester and can choose from a variety of community ministries including Ability Tree, New Life Ranch, Oaks Indian Mission, Kind at Heart Ministries, and 7Hills Homeless Center. While these volunteer hours are part of the curriculum, many students use it as a springboard for additional volunteering outside of the required hours. Nursing alumna Alexis Barnes ’20 chose Kind at Heart Ministries, an outreach to home-bound elderly people, as her volunteer placement. Even after completing her required hours, Alexis continued to volunteer with the woman with whom she was originally paired.

“You just go to their house and sit there and talk. For my friend, I’m the only one she talks to all week, Barnes said. “It’s the littlest thing, but it makes the biggest impact.”

In addition to volunteering with Kind at Heart, Barnes organized a winter drive with the 7Hills Homeless Center to provide basic supplies to the Northwest Arkansas homeless population. She was able to raise support to purchase beanies, flashlights, granola bars, hot hand warmers, gloves, coupons and emergency blankets to hand out to those in need. She also recruited other nursing students to help hand out the supplies and serve meals to people at Seven Hills. “I was like ‘what do I do?’” Barnes said. “Little things.”

As one would expect, JBU’s education students certainly get a chance to go out into the community during their semester of student teaching. But the truth is that working in the community is woven throughout the program through internship opportunities, volunteer work and classroom observations.

Dr. Connie Matchell, former department head and professor of teacher education who retired this spring, explained, “There is just one course in the whole education program that doesn’t have some sort of field experience piece.”
These field experiences include volunteer hours with Ability Tree, a nonprofit organization that comes alongside individuals and families impacted by disability, acting as aides to teachers in local schools which allows them to observe classrooms, seven-week internships and several outreaches.

“Their disposition as they walk into that school in being helpful, in being kind, in showing Christ’s love, just through using their abilities to help is huge,” said Matchell.

Each year, education students host “Day of Discovery” that brings every fourth-grade student in the SSSD to JBU’s campus for the day. The students picnic, look through microscopes, see the earthquake machine and get a glimpse of college life. Additionally, the department has started Sunrise Science, a program in which elementary students who arrive at school early are able to receive extra science education.

Kappa Delta Pi, the education department’s honors program, partners with the school district for fundraisers and events. This past year, KDP partnered with the schools to raise funds to pay off the balance of school lunch accounts. Nena Houston, professional development schools site director, describes the education department’s involvement with the schools as “a walking sermon.” Sometimes even after the required internship ends, students return to the schools to continue to build relationships with their supervising teachers.

“I’m going back to my internship placements and being an extra set of hands,” said Audrey Mathe ’20. “Even if it’s not in a teaching role, we can help out with the little things that take up a lot of their time that they’ve been using to teach.”

Those adding an emphasis in TESOL (teaching English to speakers of other languages) also have a field-hour requirement that encourages helping both adults and children in Siloam who are learning English as a second language. The program partners with the school district, the Dogwood Literacy Council (DLC), and First Baptist Church of Siloam Springs ESL classes to tutor English language-learners.

“Besides supporting the course content, this goes right along with the JBU motto of head, heart, hand,” says Marlene Schwerin, adjunct teacher education professor. “We’re reinforcing to the students, here’s another opportunity to live out the mission of JBU in the community.”

Since the DLC relies on volunteers, JBU’s partnership has been beneficial in providing tutors while the DLC has provided field experience for the students.

Within the music & theatre department, students in the worship arts program students are encouraged to use the gifts they are developing in the classroom in a local church. Junior Ben Bishop, who attended and served as an interim worship co-leader at Community Christian Fellowship (CCF) in Siloam Springs in the spring of 2020, says the classroom has prepared him for church involvement.

“I’ve been equipped with theological and intellectual tools to aid me in my ministry, as well as practical skills that I have been able to use to further the kingdom,” he said.

Similarly, senior Chloe Bishop, who co-led at CCF with Ben, says she has been strongly encouraged to get plugged in locally and use her talents. “In many of my classes in general, I have felt encouraged to live in a servant-hearted manner — in church and in the community.”

Outside of opportunities given through class assignments and academic areas, JBU Christian Ambassadors United for Service and Evangelism (CAUSE) Student Ministries mobilizes students for ministry on campus, in the community and around the world.

Although the structure of the organization has changed over the years, the mission remains the same: to provide students with outlets to grow through their gifts and to join in the ways in which God is working in the world. The ministry provides a place for students to engage their heads, hearts and hands in worship through service and evangelism. CAUSE Ministries are student-initiated and student-led. They are meant to motivate, train and support students as they learn to apply their knowledge and passions to share Christ in word and deed through practical service. Because of its structure as small groups that are part of a larger organization, CAUSE provides students with a tight-knit faith community to help them grow in their gifts and callings.

“As students engage in tangible and relational service in the community, people’s lives are impacted: children are tutored and mentored, physical needs are met in the community, the marginalized are remembered and the good news of Jesus is shared,” said Frank Hubert, director of service and outreach ministries. “These students are gaining experience and leadership skills that they can bring into their Christian communities and churches after they’ve left JBU.”

Underneath the umbrella of CAUSE Ministries are various ministry teams led by students. The students work with faculty and staff to develop the ministries.

“CAUSE leaders have a tremendous amount of autonomy to develop, implement and engage the community through their ministries,” said Hubert. “We encourage all of our CAUSE Ministries to have a co-leader model in which they go out in pairs to lead their ministries together. I remind them that they are the primary vision-keepers, administrators, recruiters and shepherds for their ministry teams: a big task but much more manageable when done together.”

Currently, CAUSE has around a dozen ministries that serve the community. These ministries seek to reach a diverse range of people in the Siloam Springs community and beyond and include serving children, the elderly, prisoners, refugees, people with disabilities and other members of the community. JBU students desiring to connect with or serve the community can get involved with a ministry that fits their gifts, talents and passions.

While CAUSE ministries have been impacted by the pandemic, students and faculty are still finding creative ways to reach the community safely.

The oldest CAUSE ministry is the Nursing Home Ministry. Before the spread of the coronavirus, students in the ministry developed relationships with residents of the local nursing home through weekly visits. During the pandemic, however, the ministry has shifted to letter-writing so that residents can still feel loved and cared for even during a time in which they are not allowed visitors.

Most CAUSE ministries are developed by students; however, some are outgrowths of existing community organizations. CAUSE strongly encourages students to reach out to ministries that are already meeting needs in the community, partnering with them for a common purpose.

One such CAUSE ministry partners with New Life Ranch (NLR), a Christian camp and retreat center in nearby Colcord, Oklahoma. Senior Olivia Fletcher, who directs the JBU side of the partnership, says that the goal of NLR’s Right Quest program is to mentor kids who don’t normally have that opportunity through outdoor education activities two hours a week..

“The vision is to connect students with someone willing to walk through life with them and guide them through what life with Christ looks like,” Fletcher said.

The JBU Golden Eagle athletes also get involved in the community, not just because it’s part of JBU’s mission, but because of their participation in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) “Champions of Character” program.

Champions of Character seeks to teach student-athletes five core values: integrity, respect, responsibility, sportsmanship and servant leadership. Each institution is tracked, ranked and recognized annually for its achievements. Each year since the program’s inception in 2000, JBU has ranked as a 5-Star Champions of Character institution.

Ability tree kids play basketballThe women’s basketball team works with Ability Tree. Since an emphasis of Ability Tree’s program is on recreation, education, support and training, the women’s basketball team has helped Ability Tree run an MVP League for the past four years. During the months of September and April, the team goes to Ability Tree one night each week and invites participants to JBU to work on basketball skills. Each child is partnered with a player. Sophomore Sierra Bailey, who was involved as a player, continued partnering with Ability Tree throughout the year.

“Ability Tree is meeting a significant need in our community and provides great services for children and their families,” she said. “As soon as you walk into the building, you are greeted with smiles and a hand leading you to go play.”

JBU basketball player poses with Ability tree kidsSenior Ally Teague, who also volunteers at Ability Tree, added, “I felt like I have been able to meet a need with just playing basketball with my partnered child. They really opened up with being able to run around and have someone play catch with them or chase them. It was really fun to see them run in every Thursday, ready to tell us about their day and play basketball.”

As Ability Tree works to meet a need in the community, the JBU student body is doing what it can to meet the needs of the organization. Through classroom assignments, volunteer opportunities and outreach ministries, John Brown University is seeking to engage with the community that surrounds it. While outreach looks different under the restrictions of a pandemic, students and faculty are seeking new ways to reach the community in a safe way. If anything, these times have emphasized even more the importance of loving our neighbors. Though these times are unprecedented, raising new questions and challenges, students are still engaging in the local community during their time at the university so they are better prepared to engage with the community that will surround them in the future.

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