March 19, 2010 | Myrna Anderson

Students and their mentors travel to sites around the country to spend their spring breaks serving and learning.

Come Saturday, Katie Sportel will rise at 6 a.m., climb into a van full of Calvin students and make the 11-hour drive to Kermit, W. Va. “Then I think we’ll have dinner with the nuns,” said Sportel, an administrative assistant in Calvin’s residence life office, “and then I don’t even know the exact agenda. We’ll just see what comes our way.”

Nine communities

Sportel is serving as the mentor for a service-learning spring break trip, one of nine such trips sending 105 Calvin students, faculty and staff to serve and learn all over the U.S. The groups will study urban ministry in Chicago, Ill., and Boston, Mass.; perform hurricane relief in Houma, La. and Galveston, Tx.; work with at-risk women in Knoxville, Tenn.; help with art rejuvenation and community development in Providence, R.I.; and learn about the culture of small-town America in Three Rivers, Mich., and the experiences of immigrant families in Grand Rapids.

The West Virginia group will explore the effects of mountaintop removal—a form of mining that removes the summit of a mountain and may be hazardous to the environment—in and around Kermit, and Sportel will serve as the group’s mentor: “I just thought I’d give it a try, learning about mountaintop removal, which is interesting to me,” she said. They will be staying at the Big Laurel Learning Center, which is operated by a group of Catholic sisters.

A supporting role

Sportel’s role on the trip is more supportive than administrative, something she learned from her previous stint as a mentor. Last year, when the mentor for the Knoxville trip suddenly dropped out, she was tapped for the job of escorting a group of Calvin women students to the Florence Crittenton Home in Knoxville, where they did landscaping, stocked a pantry with baby clothes and hung out with at-risk teenage women.

The student coordinator on the Knoxville trip handled all of the logistics: the planning, the packing, the transportation, the snacks, dealing with the staff at the center, even the nightly devotions. “It’s the student who relays all of the information. I just hopped in the van, and they told us what to do. It was great to see the student take charge. I think as the adult, you feel you should be in charge,” Sportel said.

“It allows students to develop leadership skills,” said associate director of the service-learning center Noah Kruis, who coordinates the annual trips.

Hometown hassles

Calvin sophomore Allie Meyaard, the first-time coordinator who is handling the Grand Rapids trip, said that the hometown location did not minimize the challenges: “We had a lot of time changes and day changes of activities, so once we thought we had the schedule all set, it changed again,” she said. Students serving and learning in GR will use the first weekend of the trip to accompany a group of immigrants to a conference in Washington, D.C.

Despite the hassles, Meyaard said she would put up her hand to lead again. “One of the best things about being a leader is being able to plan the trip … It has also been really fun contacting and talking to people in the Grand Rapids area that work very closely with the immigrant community.”

Mentors, Kruis said, fill a different role on the service-learning trips: “Most of our mentors are people who work at the college but whose role with students is not necessarily, on a day-to-day basis, to have a lot of interpersonal interaction with the students …,” he said, “so then this is their opportunity to have a relationship beyond that.”

Walking small

This year, the trips have been designed to give students a range of service-learning experiences without leaving a big carbon footprint. “We’re not having anybody fly this year,” said Kruis. “There are groups driving to Galveston, Texas. That’s our longest distance.”

The trips have also been designed to give a range of service-learning opportunities. “We looked for creative ways to hook people in,” Kruis said.

Sportel is already hooked. “I really enjoyed getting to know Calvin students last year that I didn’t know before,” she said. “It’s a good challenge for me to step back and let the students take charge. In that way, it’s kind of a treat.”

Katie Sportel

Planting flowers in Knoxville

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