Serving community face-to-face key to Greensburg woman's success at St. Vincent
When she started Saint Vincent College's Service Learning and Community Outreach office nearly 10 years ago, Kelly King and former colleague Jarod Trunzo didn't know where to start. So they drove around.
“Kelly's style was definitely a very authentic, pure approach to building a foundation for the office, and that led to some nontraditional ways to build experiences for students,” Trunzo said. “Once, we'd come back from a planned meeting, and then she was pulling into this really impoverished trailer court to talk.”
Face-to-face meetings and visits turned into face-to-face service opportunities for Saint Vincent students, with the goal of tying meaningful community service into their classes and clubs.
“We'd hear there was this place or that place; we'd read in the newspaper about opportunities for volunteers. ... Once you talk to one agency, they'll say, ‘You should talk to so-and-so,' ” King said. “I've been doing it nine or 10 years; I've built a good relationship with a lot of organizations that I can just call up. ... Sometimes I feel like we harass them.”
And so, King built a portfolio of partners for the program. She worked with faculty to find out how community service could fit into their curriculum, and worked with community-service organizations to build programs that would apply classroom lessons to helping their clients.
Students from a music program, for example, will learn in class about how music can affect the elderly, particularly those with dementia, and get connected through King's office to patients at Ligonier Gardens. They interview the residents about their tastes and create a personalized library they load onto a memory card that the residents can play through headphones. Staff from Ligonier Gardens can then come back to the class to discuss the benefits of the music, and will help refine future implementation of the program.
Students in a course on the history of Benedictine monastery communities, with their emphasis on hospitality, might be steered to charities that distribute food and clothing. Biology students can do stream studies that feed information to environmental groups. The program even reaches overseas, with service project partnerships and mission trips in Haiti and Guatemala.
“The dream is when it's an equal partnership, it's not like, ‘Hey, Union Mission, we need to dump some kids somewhere,' ” said King, 47. “They allow you to come and serve them, and that gift they give you allows you to live more like Christ.”
Community service is not a graduation requirement, but many courses, clubs and athletic teams will require it, so there are plenty of students flowing through her office in Albert Hall. For students without personal cars on campus and some places hard to reach by transit, King or her coworker Jessica Parsons often handle transporting students to and from their volunteer work.
“It's a great connection with the community for our residents,” said Jackie White, activities director for Mountain View Specialty Care Center in Unity, where about eight Saint Vincent students a week will help run recreational programs — ranging from bingo to biography — for the residents.
Growing up in Madison, Wis., King wasn't used to thinking of Catholic schools as places to build a community. It wasn't until she attended a Catholic college, then a year of volunteering with a Catholic elementary school in Los Angeles, that she realized there was a whole network of career options in front of her.
“I thought it was amazing about the networking .... I should have known Madison was not normal,” she said.
She taught in Catholic schools in Washington, D.C., and its Maryland suburbs, then in Toledo, Ohio. There, while teaching theology, she learned how one could make an entire career out of service-learning programs.
“I wanted to put what I'm talking about in the classroom to practical use,” King said.
She came to Saint Vincent when her husband, Jason King, took a job teaching theology, and she now lives in Greensburg with him and their three children.
Now, more than 100 courses at Saint Vincent offer some kind of community service component, and students work regularly with more than a dozen local service organizations.
The college recognized King in 2014 with its “Projektenmacher” award — founder Boniface Wimmer's somewhat derisive nickname meaning “schemer” or “dreamer” — for her work establishing the service program. She also serves on the board of the Westmoreland County Food Bank.
Trunzo, now executive director of the Latrobe Community Revitalization Program, said King's idea of community service went beyond photo opportunities or simply showing up; the experiences were more about building relationships with the people being served. So instead of working a serving line at a soup kitchen, students would make and serve family-style meals to be shared with the hungry.
“I love the people I meet and the stories I hear. It drags you out of your life a bit. Sometimes I'm talking to the faculty and think, ‘you need to get out of the classroom,' ” King said.