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SSLP promotes community development

Ann Marie Jakubowski | Thursday, December 6, 2012

When it comes to making summer plans, many Notre Dame students look for opportunities beyond the pool deck or the basement couch.

Each year, about 225 students participate in the spiritually-oriented Summer Service Learning Program (SSLP) sponsored by the Center for Social Concerns (CSC).

The program invites students to interview between November and February, and if accepted, participants choose a site to volunteer at during the summer. A partnership between the CSC and Notre Dame alumni clubs across the country connects students with opportunities in a variety of fields and organizes the logistics of room and board for their summer experiences.

Program director Andrea Smith Shappell said the program began in 1980 to give students opportunities to act upon their social concerns and experience service learning.

“Our sites range from non-profit health clinics to Catholic Worker houses to schools and day camps,” Shappell said. “Students earn three theology credits in a course that centers on the immersion experience while also incorporating theological reflection and cultural competence.”

The academic requirements for the program include weekly readings and writings throughout the summer, as well as a six- to eight-page paper at the end to synthesize the different aspects and lessons of the experience. Shappell said students return to campus in the fall and participate in three discussion meetings to close out the program.

“Our goal is to engage students in a service learning project that integrates a community engagement piece with theological readings, particularly social issues as represented in Catholic thought,” Shappell said. “We also want students to have the opportunity to engage in meaningful discussion with alumni club members and site officials.”

Shappell said the program looks for applicants with previous service experience, either in high school or college.

“We require stuadents to have some understanding of what it means to be in service as a mutual relationship,” Shappell said. “It’s not that we want students with all the answers to go help the needy, but we want people who will be open to working together to solve the social problems we face.

“We’re looking for students with good interpersonal skills and maturity. It’s not a highly competitive program, so if students meet the basic qualifications, they move on to the placement process.”

Junior Ben Cooper and senior Linda Scheiber spent a summer on Lopez Island, Wash.n, just northwest of Seattle, at the Lopez Island Family Resource Center’s (LIFRC) Kids’ Summer Workshop program. Cooper said the Resource Center’s goal was to help underprivileged children in the Lopez community by providing them with a place to spend the day during the summer.

“The program offered day camps and classes on a range of subjects all taught by talented locals, and I helped run some of these classes, including kayaking, swimmin, and painting,” Cooper said.

“Additionally, I helped run the fundraising event for the LIFRC and helped stock their locally grown food bank called ‘Lopez Fresh.'”

Scheibeh said the experience was “eye-opening,” and it changed the way she viewed life back at Notre Dame.

“I would count my SSLP as one of the most significant experiences I have had at Notre Dame,” Scheiber said. “I grew personally by doing service for eight weeks on the other side of the country, and I was challenged by the contrast between my expectations and what I actually found at my site, particularly the fact that the poverty and marginalization of the people I was working with often wasn’t apparent.”

Cooper said his summer on Lopez Island left him with a sense of gratitude, and he would recommend the experience to any student.

“I came away from the summer with an understanding of how fortunate I am to be able to go to a school like Notre Dame and to be afforded all the opportunities I’ve had throughout my life,” Cooper said. “Lopez has a unique and laid-back culture of simplicity and humility that greatly impacted my life.”

Shappell said SSLP exemplifies the Holy Cross approach to educating both the heart and the mind, connecting with the University’s mission.

“The opportunity to develop relationships with people who are often on the margins of society can affect students on the emotional, ‘heart’ level, and then raise questions for them to take back to campus and address in the academic courses they take,” Shappell said. “Service learning is an opportunity for students to learn things they couldn’t learn in the classroom, and hopefully the questions raised through the experience can be explored in the required readings of the course and through the people that students work with.”

Scheiber said her experience on Lopez Island helped open her eyes to the reality of life on society’s margins, changing the way she views social justice.

“The readings taught me a lot about poverty and helped me think about the ways I can integrate Catholic social justice into my life,” Scheiber said. “One of the biggest impacts the experience had on me was helping me discern how I am called to live in solidarity with the poor.”