Service Trips are Life-Changing for Student Volunteers
When the bus full of Viterbo University students drove into the Hurricane Katrina and flood ravaged areas of New Orleans, their reaction was the same—dead silence.
“We couldn’t believe it,” said Chelsea Muckenhirn, one of the students on the bus. “I didn’t want to blink. It was like we were looking out the window at a different country. It was complete devastation. There is no way to describe it.”
Greeting the passengers on the bus were deserted houses, eight-month-old garbage in the streets, and assorted litter in the most unexpected places.
Muckenhirn, a biology major from Osceola, had joined 33 of her fellow students on a spring break service trip to Louisiana. Instead of lying on a beach or enjoying a week of home-cooked meals like so many college students, the group donated their time and talents to helping some of those who needed it most.
“It was very satisfying,” Muckenhirn said. “As a student we usually can’t do much to help because we don’t have a lot of money or time. This was a spring break I will never forget.”
Muckenhirn and her companions spent the week working to feed local citizens and rescue workers and cleaning up the area. They helped with the preparation, serving, and clean-up of 1,000–3,000 meals per day. Conditions were far from optimal, but the students banded together and gave their all, said campus minister Chris McClead, who helps organize and accompanies the students on the trips.
“They never stopped working and I never heard one complaint,” McClead said. “I think they were all prepared mentally, but meeting the people really seemed to open their hearts to what was going on.”
Upon arrival, the group learned they couldn’t set anything on the ground because the earth was considered “toxic” from flooding and spillage from the nearby oil refinery. They slept in tents erected on wooden pallets.
“When that’s the first thing you hear, you start to wonder what you got yourself into,” Muckenhirn said. “But everyone worked together to carry the pallets. It was a good way to start the week—working together.”
Rising every day at 5 a.m. and working most of the week in the field kitchen making eggs for breakfast, she greatly enjoyed the work and the people she met.
“It was hard to leave at the end of the week,” she said. “I didn’t want to get on the bus. It was hard to go back to class. What I was doing was directly helping someone and improving their lives.”
The service trip to Arabi, La. was one of two the Viterbo campus ministry department organized for the academic year, a tradition since the arrival of Father Tom O’Neill in 1994. An international trip to Peru also took place in May.
“Service trips have been a hallmark of religious affiliated universities for a long time,” said Fr. O’Neill, vice president for mission and ministry, who had gone on many such trips in his days as a student and a Jesuit, including spending eight summers in the Dominican Republic and two on an Indian Mission in South Dakota.
“It was my feeling that I got much more than I was able to contribute. I learned about other people, other cultures, and other places in the world. I learned how other people struggle and to appreciate what I have,” he said.
Viterbo students have traveled to Appalachia, parts of Texas, Kansas City, Minneapolis, and other places since the trips began at Viterbo in 1995. Participation in experiences like these is a very important part of a student’s education, Fr. O’Neill said.
“Education and learning is an activity of the mind,” he said. “Service trips are a learning experience of the heart. We want to educate the whole person and put them both together.”
Travis Bassett, a junior from Amherst, Wis., majoring in broad field social studies, was a participant in the first service trip this year, traveling to Minneapolis and St. Paul during the semester break. The volunteers worked with the elderly and children, including spending time helping in a Catholic Worker House, a food pantry, a soup kitchen, and performing other community service projects. This was his first involvement on a service trip and with campus ministry.
“The first day we were working in a soup kitchen serving breakfast it was 10 below zero outside,” Bassett said. “People were lined up around the block. It really hit me.”
Bassett found himself staring into the face of hunger and homelessness, and he was profoundly moved.
“I thought I knew what to expect, but hearing about some of their situations really affected me,” he said. “I left the Twin Cities with a new appreciation for what I had.”
Muckenhirn and Bassett went on a third service trip this year, an international trip to Peru. The group of nine Viterbo students worked in an orphanage doing landscaping and childcare.
It is almost impossible for students not to be affected in some way by their experiences on a service trip Fr. O’Neill said.
“I’ve had many students report the service trips have had a profound effect on them,” Fr. O’Neill said. “The emotional, spiritual, and intellectual came together on the same trip. A couple of students even went in to ministry. What it does is inspire people to be life-long contributors to society.”
The acts performed on service trips are also in keeping with Franciscan values and Viterbo’s mission statement.
“The Prayer of St. Francis says, ‘For it is in giving that we receive,’” Fr. O’Neill said. “Nowhere is this more true than on a service trip.
La Crosse Tribune reporter Kate Schott accompanied the group on the service trip to Louisiana and sent back a story each day. For much more information on the event, find her articles at www.viterbo.edu/louisiana.html.