On a Saturday morning in April, I walked into a meeting room at Family Support Center’s Pear Blossom Place. I was there at the invitation of Susan Leyster and John Hopkins, who are responsible for heading up Saint Martin’s University’s Service Immersion Programs. Susan is the Director of Service Immersion Programs and John is the Associate Dean of Students. The University’s Service Immersion Programs focus on encouraging students to actively incorporate community service into their university experience.

Susan Leyster
Susan Leyster is the Director of Service Immersion Programs at Saint Martin’s University. Photo courtesy: Saint Martin’s University

As I entered, John, Susan and 8 of 15 students who had participated in an “urban plunge” at Pear Blossom Place were debriefing their experience. According to Susan, the location is “Thurston County’s largest 24-hour emergency homeless family shelter, which includes seven permanent affordable supportive housing units with on-site supportive services.” Their group had spent 20 hours on-site, including an overnight, alongside the families staying there. Students learned about the many reasons families might need transitional and permanent housing support by having meaningful conversations with residents and staff.

Service Immersion trips support organizations like Boys & Girls Club of Thurston County, Hands On Children’s Museum, Olympia Union Gospel Mission, various agencies in the Yakima Valley and Saint André Bessette Catholic Church and Blanchet House in Portland, Oregon. Participation makes a significant impact on students, providing them with first-hand knowledge of the issues facing people in need of services. “This knowledge is paired with social justice learning of systemic causes of poverty and Catholic social teachings of solidarity, dignity of persons and options for the poor.”

During the debrief at Pear Blossom, student participants discussed and shared thoughtful insights on what they had learned during their experience.

“Reflection is a major part of the experience,” said Susan.

One student, a social work major, shared, “Doing this helps me understand that I never know what’s going on for someone I may be working with, so I need to be patient, be trauma-informed and know that maybe today’s not the best day to talk to someone and we can reschedule. I can learn better ways to be an advocate for someone.”

Saint Martin's University Students
Students and staff from Saint Martin’s Service Immersion Program after their overnight at Pear Blossom Place. Photo credit: Anna Robinson

Chantal Arevalo, an education major, has seen how what’s going on outside of school can negatively impact a student’s ability to learn and thrive. “I [want teachers to] create a classroom that makes students feel safe and secure and able to express themselves the way that they need. I hope we can really make a change in the way we treat our students, the way we see education and the role it plays, because it really is like a mini picture of our society and we do so much to be complicit in it as teachers. When you’re in your classroom, you have such a huge impact with how you treat your students and what you say, so I want to keep learning how I can do that effectively.”

Abbigail Shirk, who is the Family Justice Center program manager at the Family Support Center, also participated in the debrief and she shared some powerful information with the group. “The opposite of hope is apathy…A student who’s not engaged in your classroom, their head laying on their desk – that’s apathy. That’s when they no longer can see how things could be different. As a hope-centered agency, we are trying to create pathways and support each person’s agency – understanding their value to themselves, their family, their community and improving that resilience for them to believe in themselves and move forward. Substance abuse and mental health will impact that as well.”

Morgan Olson, a junior who is earning a degree in social work at Saint Martin’s, has been a student leader in the program for two years. “The service we do leans towards meeting people with dignity and respect and coming together in a common space to listen and share experiences,” she shared. “Many of our programs dig into the values of community and respect for people. Being able to spend the night at Pear Blossom gives great insight into the real and current issues that families are experiencing every day in Thurston County.” Morgan went on to share how excited the children at Pear Blossom were to show the Saint Martin’s group around, sharing favorite toys and showing a real pride of place. She observed that the families there develop a real sense of community and support living together.

Urban Plunge
Saint Martin’s students participating in an “Urban Plunge” at Pear Blossom Place in Olympia. Photo credit: Susan Leyster

“Through my experience with the Urban Plunge and interning for the Family Justice Center under The Family Support Center, I have learned a tremendous amount about the issues and barriers between families and services,” she explained. “We need to educate ourselves on these issues that are in our own backyard so we can become a better community.”

I’ve been working in the non-profit and social justice field for twenty years, most recently as the Development Director at SideWalk and the Grants & Marketing Manager at GRuB, so I have seen the need in our community firsthand, as well as the dedication it takes to dedicate a portion of your life to service work. Given that, it was incredibly uplifting to see a group of young people so engaged in work that actively supports local social service organizations.

Saint Martin’s program operates with the ideal that “student exposure to other cultures, places and ways of life enhance the lives and perspectives of our students who participate, and of those they serve. It is a chance for our students to experience a new view on life, to learn from those we serve and to learn more about ourselves.”

Service immersion programs are open to all incoming and current students, with a commitment to participation for the remainder of their time with the University. First-year students who are accepted to the Norcia Leadership Community and Residence Hall are automatically enrolled in the program.

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