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In 2007, Mike Fales, director of service learning and campus ministries, had an idea. He established an alternative spring break for Olivet College to test if students would be willing to give up their spring break to help a community in need. Ten students signed up, and the experience has only grown from there. Today, these trips range from weekend excursions to week long adventures and take students across the country to help communities in need, or aid in disaster relief efforts.

“When Hurricane Katrina hit, students came to me asking to help the cause. We set up a trip at the end of the semester through the United Church of Christ, they had established a recovery ministry in New Orleans and Olivet was the first group to go there through that organization.”

The trip to Katrina was so popular with OC students, that Mike has since established more trips based around disaster relief. The most recent being the massive flooding that occurred in South Carolina this past fall.

“We initially had trouble finding organizations in South Carolina that we could work with. Eventually I found All Hands Volunteers, and we took 33 people in December to help the cause.”

Olivet College partners with many organizations like All Hands, which provided the tools and training necessary for students to lend a hand and do their part. And they have, with some very impressive results:

  • Students worked with Hosanna Industries in Pittsburgh to provide new home construction for an elderly woman. She bought the shingles, and OC students put on a new roof in four hours saving her about $9,000.
  • Through the Morgan Scott Project in Tennessee, students have helped with home repair, made wheelchair ramps, installed indoor plumbing, and have created 350 vegetable gardens for the local community.
  • In Port Austin, Michigan, students worked with the Port Austin Historical Society to refurbish an old building and turn it into a history museum for the town. Under years of smoke stains, a drop ceiling and an old laminate floor, was a beautiful wood ceiling and a wood floor waiting for a new life.
  • Every year Greek pledges, joined by President Steven Corey, head to Port Austin on their annual Greek Service Day. This year the students helped 15 different non-profits with projects ranging from scraping paint to cleaning and organizing a library.
  • Students recently helped alumni, Dan and Emily Byrens, move back to Michigan from their retirement community. They rode with students in the OC van the entire way to their new home.

“These trips are called Service Learning because it’s more than students doing labor,” said Fales. “As a member of the faculty I regard it as experiential learning. These are lessons students will retain for the rest of their lives.”

Fales, with the help of Carrie Jacob, community service coordinator, does his best to find meaningful service projects, as well as projects in locations that are off the beaten path. These new experiences are twofold. They expose students to realities such as poverty and the effects of natural disasters, or just one’s occasional need for a helping hand. But they also offer an opportunity for travel and glimpse into new cultures students may not have been aware of.

“The coolest thing we do is take students to a place they’ve never seen before. And instead of eating at the local McDonald’s, we try to find food festivals or community gatherings where we can meet people and take in the local culture,” said Fales.

Sometimes the students teach the communities a thing or two as well. “We are a reflection of Olivet College. We have a lot of minority and LGBT students in our program, and sometimes that’s a learning experience for the communities where we go.”

This March, students have the opportunity to head to Heifer Ranch in Perryville, Ark. There, they will learn farm chores, and spend a night living in a “global village” that simulates different areas of the world. In its 18th year going to the Heifer Ranch location, the Service Learning program has grown from 10 student volunteers, up to 33 depending on the trip.

“Now, we’re limited to the amount of students we can fit in the vans. It’s a first come, first served basis,” said Jacob.

The group is also headed back to South Carolina to continue to help with flood relief this March, and in April they are going back to the Morgan Scott project in Tennessee to continue building community gardens.

Next year, students participating in Service Learning have the opportunity to head to Japan where they will focus on the culture and religion of the country. The following year, the team will head to England and Ireland where they’ll focus on peace studies and the religious issues between England and Ireland.

For more information on the upcoming service trips, or to learn more, reach out to Mike Fales at mfales@olivetcollege.edu.

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