Elise Ditta engaged in service before her time at Calvin College; as a sophomore in high school, she worked as a tutor with Roosevelt Park Christian Reformed Church’s English as a Second Language program. Roosevelt Park and the Service-Learning Center join in the Schultze-Eldersveld Residence Hall Partnership, so Elise ran into the Service-Learning Center staff at the church. She was drawn to them. “I don't think, at that point, I had maybe as much of a grasp of the theory behind service-learning, but was interested in the work that I saw the Service-Learning Center do,” she says. The spring of her first year at Calvin, Elise interviewed for a position on the S-LC staff.
“Coming in as a rising sophomore… I wasn't really confident in my skills or abilities, but I was given a lot of freedom to develop those. Basically, I had to jump right in—making phone calls to organizations, or making maps for Streetfest transportation, those kinds of things that I never thought that I could do,” she says. The skills Elise practiced at the S-LC translated well to life outside of the office, and the lessons she learned have stayed with her over the years since graduation—particularly themes of reflection, thoughtful action, rest and celebration as practiced by the Service-Learning center staff. The community of coworkers became a touchstone and sounding board for Elise. “We can't do everything on our own and it's only as a community that we can make changes… At the Service-Learning Center, I could see many different service organizations through our partner agencies, and the creative, faithful work they were doing here in Grand Rapids, and continue to be inspired by that,” she says, an influence in her decision to pursue non-profit work after leaving Calvin.
From the S-LC, Elise moved to Honduras, serving with Mennonite Central Committee on a Serving and Learning Together (SALT) appointment. She lived with a host family in Nueva Suyapa, a community in Tegucigalpa, and served at a local non-profit, the Association for a More Just Society, which seeks to combat corruption and violent crime. “I really enjoyed my time there and felt like I was learning a lot, so I decided to extend my time with Mennonite Central Committee for two more years. So for the last two years I've been working as a Mennonite Central Committee service worker at Association for a More Just Society, mostly doing communications and bridge-building between the Honduran branch of the organization and the US and Canadian branches,” she says. Elise now works directly for the Association for a More Just Society as Director of Communications.
Living cross-culturally and organizing to fight injustice is no small task, but Elise learned to rise to the challenge. “What the Service-Learning Center has prepared me for, amongst other things, is to not be prepared… you never know what's going to come up, but you've got to take whatever comes and do your best. Especially during Streetfest and Spring Break Trips, I found that,” Elise says. “So I think that going to Honduras where things are maybe even less defined than things are here, I felt really comforted. I don't know exactly what I'm going to do, but I think that my experience here has prepared me for that: to not be prepared.”
The Service-Learning Center and AJS both practice “getting into the midst of the messy things and working for change and transformation through God's grace and in community,” she explains. That gritty task requires both creativity and faithfulness, but Elise Ditta is ready, and convicted: “we have to get into the middle of the messiness and brokenness of the world in order to make transformation, and transformation that won't be perfect, but that will be something—a step along the way.”
BY KATIE VAN ZANEN