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Service-Learning Center 50 years Calvin College
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Deborah Walker '05: Reflection turns to action

The six-page Oct. 9, 1964, edition of Chimes featured stories on the fall play (Taming of the Shrew) and the Mission Emphasis Week speaker (Dr. Harry Boer), alongside ads for Swierenga Jewelers, Remes Drug Stores and Little Joe’s Pizza. Tucked toward the back was a 375-word story on a new student organization on campus: Project KIDS.

The name, the story noted, stood for Kindling Intellectual Desire in the Schools. The moniker, the author suggested, was an apt one, as the new program’s goal was to match Calvin student tutors with Grand Rapids schoolchildren, primarily at Sigsbee and Henry elementary schools, but also with high school students via a partnership with True Light Baptist Church.

The project began, Chimes continued, in spring 1964 when Michigan State University invited Calvin’s dean of students, Phil Lucasse, and a student representative to attend a conference that would focus on how college students could help potential high school dropouts.

There the assembled throng of educators and students heard Michigan Gov. George Romney exhort them to make a difference in their communities, particularly with elementary school students, whom, he said, would be receptive to their message and their example.

Suitably inspired—and drawn to Romney’s ideas by a strong sense of Christian service—during the summer of 1964 two students, Janice VandenBosch and Sharon Draft, worked with education professor Donald Oppewal to initiate a program that could fulfill the governor’s clarion call to action. Project KIDS was born. By fall 1964 some 25 students already were part of a program now headed up by student coordinators Draft, VandenBosch and Jan Deur.

More students would be needed, added Chimes, as several other area elementary schools sought to be part of Project KIDS. The only requirements to be a tutor? Students should be “eager, willing, dependable and competent in some subject area,” wrote the unnamed Chimes author.

Criteria remains the same

Almost half a century later, Jeff Bouman ’87 chuckles when he hears that set of criteria.

“Those are probably most of the same things we still look for in tutors today,” Bouman said with a smile. “That’s still a pretty good description.”

Bouman would know. For the past 11 years he has been the director of Calvin’s Service-Learning Center (SLC), the organization that Project KIDS became (with a stop in the 1980s as the Student Volunteer Service or SVS), an organization that annually places hundreds of Calvin students as tutors in west Michigan schools.

And while much has changed at Calvin, in Grand Rapids and in the world in the almost 50 years since Project KIDS began, Bouman, and many others, believe that the central work of Project KIDS lives on even today in the work of the SLC.

For one thing, probably half or more of the 55,000 hours Calvin students give to the Grand Rapids community each year still come in the form of tutoring area schoolchildren.

“It’s still a huge thing the community asks of us,” said Bouman, “and it’s still an area where we feel that as a college we have something really valuable to contribute.”

Active role of students

Another area of continuity from 1964 to 2013 is the active role of Calvin students in running the operation. When it began, Project KIDS was entirely student run. Today there are four full-time staff members, but also a plethora of student leaders in each of the SLC’s main areas of emphasis.

All told there are at least a dozen students who each year take an active role in planning and coordinating the SLC’s many activities. Those include StreetFest (the program begun under former SVS director Rhonda Berg ’82 for all first-year students that sees them doing a service project even before they take their first class), tutoring, blood drives, running the campus Special Olympics games, and residence hall partnerships (also begun during Berg’s 1985–­2001 tenure) that pair each dorm with a community partner for a school year’s worth of activities.

Those students, Bouman added, then leave Calvin and often work in nonprofit settings around the world, where their leadership roles create an impressive array of meaningful work and study options for Calvin students with hearts and minds intent on doing God’s work in God’s world, just as they have for the past half century.

Reciprocal nature

Yet another common thread running through the past 50 years is the reciprocal nature of service-learning, even back in the mid-1960s when it was still called volunteering. Students then and now get as much out of their experience as they give.

In its infancy, Deur, VandenBosch and Draft wrote of the program: “It gives Calvin College students an opportunity to give of themselves for others.” And already in a Dec. 4, 1964, Chimes article on KIDS, and the successes it had experienced during the fall semester, one student was quoted as saying she loved her KIDS work, but also had some honest ambiguity about her role in the schools. “I feel like a thief,” she admitted. “I have taken so much from this experience. I can only hope I have given the equivalent.”

Oppewal, who helped KIDS get off the ground in the 1960s, addressed the same tensions in a chapel talk he gave Oct. 24, 1989, as part of a time of celebration for the SVS 25-year anniversary. But he put a slightly more gentle spin on the idea that volunteers perhaps get as much as they give. “Volunteers know that giving is not a one-way street,” he said. “Those who give also get, for it is in blessing others that we also receive … and in losing ourselves in service we find ourselves.”

Bouman said that both the student quote from 1964 and Oppewal’s remarks from 1989 would resonate with today’s Calvin students, who also find that in working with the SLC they get as much as they give.

But, he added, it’s also something that he and the current SLC staff pay close attention to because they never want the local community to become, for Calvin, a means to an end.

“There can be a danger to that sense that we get more than we give,” he said. “It raises the question: Are we stealing from the community? Is service-learning more about us than the people we help? Those are critical questions that not only Calvin, but colleges and universities around the country, are asking.”

A book published in 2009—The Unheard Voices: Community Organizations and Service Learning—notes that while students indeed seem to benefit from service- learning, the evidence is less conclusive as to whether communities benefit.

“Reading it got my attention,” said Bouman, “and so I floated this idea to several community partners and asked them to be honest with me: Did they ever feel this way about their partnerships with Calvin? They were unanimous in their response. ‘Nope,’ they said, ‘this is not how it feels (with Calvin).’ So that was good to hear. But it’s something we continue to keep an eye on.”

From volunteerism to service-learning

The movement in the early 1990s from volunteerism to academically based service- learning is a third area where Project KIDS founders would also see resonance between their efforts in the 1960s and current initiatives. When Project KIDS began, it was an outgrowth of efforts already under way by students in sociology and education classes who saw volunteering as a way to connect their studies to more practical, hands-on opportunities.

And in the early 1970s leaders in Project KIDS (which by then had changed the name simply to KIDS and changed what it stood for from Kindling Intellectual Desire in the Schools to Kindling Intellectual Desire in Students) were keen on adding an academic emphasis to the work Calvin students were doing in the community.

Indeed when the first full-time director of KIDS, H. David Dekker ’67, resigned in a letter dated April 13, 1973, one of his clear concerns was his frustration that the college was not more willing to move volunteerism into a curricular context.

His letter was gracious, and he noted he was grateful to have been able to serve his alma mater as the KIDS director, yet he was plain-spoken about the areas where he saw room for improvement.

“I have been unhappy,” he wrote, “that the concept for allowing KIDS volunteers to earn academic credit … has received so little support from students, the college departments and the college.”

It would be another 20 years before the vision put to paper by Dekker—who would go on to a 37-year career in Lansing, Mich., with the State Office on Aging—would come to fruition.

In February 1993 an ad hoc committee that included Berg, as well as faculty members James Bradley, Henry Hoeks, George Monsma, Ken Pomykala and Kristin Van Weelden, submitted to the provost and the vice president for student affairs their report on service-learning. It recommended that the educational policy committee encourage the faculty to incorporate academically based service, where appropriate, in courses in the Calvin College curriculum. It also recommended release time for a faculty member to work with SVS to arrange forums, seminars and workshops on how to do academically based service-learning and that funding be available to faculty seeking to develop courses with an academically based service-learning component.

It was Dekker’s dream come to life, and it was, said Bouman, a watershed moment for volunteering at Calvin as well as a credit to Berg’s leadership.

Today in any given year some 150-plus courses and sections at Calvin taught by more than 50 professors across 20 departments incorporate academically based service-learning with positive results for professor, Calvin students and community partners.

Calvin Spanish professor Marilyn Bierling has been doing academically based service- learning for almost her entire 24 years of teaching at Calvin, and she thinks it’s an invaluable educational tool. Her students regularly tutor at the Hispanic Center in Grand Rapids, duties that involve a heavy dose of Spanish language no matter what the subject of the tutoring happens to be.

“I like putting the students in contact with the language and culture of the people they are studying in class,” she said. “Students receive valuable experience that makes their learning more real, and at the same time the participating organization receives some of the help it needs. Students relate classroom learning to the outside world. They gain proficiency in Spanish comprehension and conversation, they meet and interact with real people from various Latino cultures, and they reflect on what it means to be a Christian in a diverse world.”

Another professor who’s a big fan of academically based service-learning is Calvin biologist Dave Warners.

Since 1998, he has been involved with the Calvin Environmental Assessment Program (CEAP), an initiative that arose in 1997 from the work the SLC was doing on academically based service-learning. A particular concern was that much of the academically based service-learning at other institutions seemed to focus on the humanities. At Calvin the goal was to also include the sciences. CEAP, said Warners, gave the college a good way to incorporate service-learning in the classroom, but it has since grown to encompass transforming the institution itself and its relations with the surrounding community.

“Through the CEAP program,” said Warners, “science becomes grounded in a real place. The goal is to engage students and faculty in service-learning, to engage them in meaningful learning in a real-life context.”

The college’s decade-long efforts to restore more native plants to campus are part of the CEAP program and have been a success on many levels, said Warners, including the planting since 1999 of more than 20,000 native wildflowers and grasses by not just students, but also staff and faculty from numerous departments.

National recognition

Such stories resonate with former KIDS director Jonathan Bradford ’71. He served from 1973 to 1978 and is now the president and CEO of the Inner City Christian Federation in Grand Rapids, which since 1974 has provided housing opportunities and services in Grand Rapids. He remembers fondly that during his tenure as director, Calvin faculty were some of his biggest allies.

“I remember the extraordinary support that we got from many professors,” he said. “Several helped us recruit volunteers by regularly inviting me to speak to their classes, and also worthy of mention is President (William) Spoelhof. Both before and after he retired, he was a constant fan of the KIDS program. I got to know the college and its faculty in a different way. While an undergrad I did not take the time to really get to know and appreciate the place for all its strengths and commitment to transforming the world in the name of Christ. I like to think that God brought me back two years after graduation to give me a second chance to do that.”

Such stories also resonate with and are gratifying to Calvin’s Gail Gunst Heffner, who for seven years (1994 to 2001) served the college and the SLC as director of academically based service-learning. She now works for Calvin in the provost’s office as director of community engagement.

Heffner was in on the first academically based service-learning courses at Calvin, helped create CEAP and, with Berg and the SLC’s students, diligently worked to create opportunities for faculty to connect their teaching and research to issues or concerns within the Grand Rapids community.

She recalls those early years of academically based service-learning with fondness.

“It really blossomed and grew during the 1990s, with faculty members in just about every department on campus choosing service-learning as a teaching tool in particular course offerings,” she said. “And after just a few years of academically based service-learning, in the late 1990s Calvin was recognized as a national leader in service-learning, and we hosted a Lilly Exchange on academically based service-learning for faculty from other colleges and universities.

“It was wonderful to work with student leaders who were visionary and committed, with faculty members who were creative and innovative, and with community partners whose voice and perspective shaped our work and helped us remember why this work matters so much.”

Such stories also are part of the reason Calvin’s service-learning efforts regularly win national awards, with the first coming in 1970–71 from the state of Michigan during Dekker’s tenure (a national award also came Calvin’s way while he served). There’s a bit of irony to that, said Bouman.

“We’re known as this very cerebral place, especially in Christian college circles,” he said, “so for us to be a leader in experiential pedagogy is a little strange.” He jokingly calls the SLC the “Anabaptist” corner of the Calvin campus. But he wonders, too, if the SLC might not play a bit of a leavening role for the college.

He is fond of a recent book called To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. Author James Davison Hunter is a professor of religion, culture and social theory at the University of Virginia and executive director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. He argues that Christian efforts to change the world are often flawed and often fail, and instead of trying to transform the world, Christians should instead practice what he calls “faithful presence.” This idea, noted Bouman, places a premium on responding to God in loving obedience and in doing so being in the places where God wants His people to be. It also demands, he believes, a greater trust in God’s providence and a willingness to surrender control to an omnipotent creator.

For Bouman the philosophy rings true for his own experiences as a Calvin student volunteering with SVS.

“I was a Big Brother,” he recalled, “and every week when I would stand on that porch and get ready to ring the doorbell, I would be scared, and I really wasn’t sure if I wanted to be there. But I did it, and a huge part of my character was formed in that obedience.”

Bouman also likes the words of former Calvin religion professor Gordon Spykman, who once wrote: “Nothing matters but the Kingdom, but because of the Kingdom everything matters.”

The ideas of “faithful presence” and “everything matters because of the Kingdom” have been at the heart of Calvin’s service-learning efforts for half a century now, and Bouman figures they’re both pretty good sentiments to inform the way forward.

“Ultimately, Christian service and how we respond as Christians to God’s call for our lives at Calvin College, as students, faculty and staff, is the thread that runs through all of our service-learning stories, from KIDS to SVS to now,” he said. “It started in the 1960s, as David Dekker said, because of who the students were as Christians. It continues today, and, we hope, will continue to be our inspiration for many decades to come.”

Additional research and reporting by Kathryn Van Zanen ’14, SLC student researcher.

Phil de Haan is Calvin’s senior public relations specialist.