As the semester nears its end, students at Olivet College are working hard to prepare for more than just final exams. Service learning has been part of the college’s mission since its founding in 1844, and is still a value upheld by students today. During the Intensive Learning Term, a special session of classes at the end of each spring semester, 15 Comets will travel to Puerto Rico April 29 to May 14 to perform hurricane relief efforts.
Puerto Rico is still recovering after two deadly storms hit the island in September 2017. On September 6, Hurricane Irma skirted the island, leaving more than a million Puerto Ricans without power and a third of the population without access to clean water. Just two weeks later, 80,000 residents were still without power when Hurricane Maria made landfall, further devastating the island to historic proportions. Parts of Puerto Rico received 30 inches of rain in one day and sustained winds of 155 miles per hour. Now more than six months later, the island and its residents are still reeling in the aftermath.
“Hurricane Maria may have been the worst hurricane in history to hit the islands in this part of the world,” explained Mike Fales ’75, assistant professor of interdisciplinary studies and religion and director of service learning and campus ministries. “Students’ participation will literally change the lives of those they serve. Disaster relief at this level is a once in a lifetime opportunity to serve the under served people of our nation and the world. This is something students will remember for the rest of their lives.”
Students will focus on renovating homes and small businesses in Barranquitas, a mountainous village about one and a half hours south of San Juan, the island’s capital. The community was one of the hardest hit areas of the region and is still struggling to restore its electricity. The group will be partnering with All Hands and Hearts, a volunteer-powered disaster relief organization dedicated to rebuilding hope for people impacted by natural disasters all over the world. Over the last 12 years, All Hands and Hearts has enabled thousands of volunteers to make a difference – many of which have been Comets.
“I began putting feelers out last fall to see if there was a way I could take students to Puerto Rico,” Professor Fales said. “The island was in such disrepair it was difficult to find information and many of the organizations I knew about weren’t even able to get there. In December, All Hands and Hearts announced it would be sending aid to Puerto Rico and shortly after, I applied to bring 10 students. I had such a strong response that I went back and asked to bring 15 students instead. I especially enjoy working with this organization because they truly live by their mission to address the immediate and long-term needs of communities impacted by natural disasters through volunteerism.”
Further, Professor Fales continued exploring opportunities to maximize the impact students could make in Puerto Rico and helped secure a $10,500 grant from the Mission and Outreach Council of the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches to fund the trip. The council has previously contributed to OC service trips, but this is the largest grant the college has received. Thanks to its support, the opportunity to serve others is at minimal cost to students.
For one Comet, the devastation in Puerto Rico and the opportunity to make a difference has hit especially close to home. Junior Dominique McKillop is proud of her Puerto Rican heritage and part of only the second generation of her family to grow up in the United States. Dominique’s grandmother and much of her family still lives on the island, and she has spent countless holidays visiting Puerto Rico. When she found out she would be able perform service helping others who share her culture, tears sprung to her eyes.
“My grandma lived in Michigan while I was growing up, and we’ve been extremely close ever since even though she moved back to Puerto Rico,” Dominique explained. “During the hurricanes, it was difficult for my family to stay in contact with each other and very scary, but we are fortunate that no one was harmed. Just last month my grandma finally gained her power back. My family in Michigan is trying to help as much as possible, but it’s hard not being there so when I heard about the trip, I knew right away I wanted to go.”
Dominique’s grandmother lives in Salinas, only about an hour south of Barranquitas. While visiting her isn’t part of the official itinerary just yet, Dominique and Professor Fales are already working to plan a visit. Dominque is especially looking forward to sharing her native cuisine with fellow Comets and has asked her grandmother to prepare some of her favorite dishes.
Students will depart on the journey to Puerto Rico in just a few short weeks, and these Comets can hardly contain their enthusiasm to be more and do good.
Learn more about Olivet College and service learning by visiting campus or attending an upcoming admissions event. OC even offers the Difference Maker Talent Scholarship, awarded to students who have a strong passion for making a difference in the lives of others. Contact the Office of Admissions at 800.456.7189 or firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.