St. Vincent College honors students with service awards
A self-described former homebody, Tom Eshleman has left that limited experience far behind over the past four years.
A 21-year-old senior accounting major at St. Vincent College, the Hempfield resident has traveled to three countries on two continents to assist with faith-based humanitarian programs — efforts that have earned him one of the college's three inaugural James D. Bendel service awards, and an accompanying $300 prize.
Kelly King, the college's director of service learning and community outreach, said the award is meant to encourage students to aid vulnerable populations and reflects the commitment of 1960s alumni Bendel and Donald Green, who created the award, in “advocating for the rights of marginalized communities.”
With encouragement from his father, Ron, Eshleman made his first trip abroad in 2013. Arranged through The Potter's School in Virginia, which provided his online French lessons, he spent three weeks assisting with a bilingual summer Bible school in the French town of Carcassonne.
Enjoying the experience, he said, “I've been hopping all over the place now.”
He's made return journeys to France to help lead Bible school lessons at a church in Marseille.
He's expanded his itinerary to include mission trips to Thailand and Laos, through the Virginia school, and to Uganda, through Saving Grace Church, where he worships in Indiana County.
King said Eshleman was a strong candidate for the Bendel award because he's “chosen to dedicate his time and effort to familiarizing himself with the critical needs in these developing countries and collaborating with the local agencies and ministries that are addressing these needs.”
Eshleman visited Thailand for two weeks in January 2014, raising money to help support Lighthouse in Action, a mission in the city of Chiang Mai. He explained the program is run by a Thai woman, who operates a hostel and cafe to help girls and young women escape from human trafficking that serves the sex tourism industry.
“She employs them at her hostel as cleaning ladies, cooks and baristas. We spent time with them and got to know them, to kind of show them there's a different life beyond,” Eshleman said.
He noted the Thai people are “very thankful when you actually show an interest in them, that you're not just there to buy their things and leave.”
During a week-long sojourn in Laos in November 2015, Eshleman helped tend the grounds of a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center. In return, the native people he befriended “taught me how to drive a motorcycle.”
He spent 10 days in March 2015 helping the organization Raising Up Hope for Uganda, which provides shelter, clothing and other services for more than 100 orphaned and homeless children in the capital city of Kampala and nearby Bulenga.
Eshleman and other volunteers helped construct the group's Village of Hope, to provide additional housing for the children, a medical clinic, a vocational training center and recreational areas.
“We laid bricks and dug footers for the building,” he said. “It was really enjoyable.”
To help support the venture financially, the volunteers have purchased crafts the children make, such as necklaces of large paper “beads” hardened with shellac. Some also cover their tuition to attend a local school.
Eshleman was struck by a 14-year-old girl, Rebecca. “She was essentially like one of the moms to the younger kids,” he said.
He said the toughest part of the trip, during an outreach visit to the city's slums, was realizing the many other children who still needed help.
“You see kids that are sleeping on piles of trash,” Eshleman said. “Scavenging birds are constantly circling them because it literally looks like death.”
During his travels, including a summer backpacking trip with a friend through six European countries, Eshleman said he's come to realize, “The world is a lot bigger than the little space you occupy.
“It's helped change my outlook on different cultures and people. I've become more socially aware.”
Eshleman, who may use his prize to finance another overseas trip, said his goal is to increase the number of countries he's visited to 22 by the time he graduates.
“I have a few more to go,” he said.
Also honored at a Wednesday Bendel awards luncheon were Michael Cooper of Lewisburg, a junior biology major who has volunteered with a nonprofit that provides medical supplies and counseling to diabetic children, and Jenni Urban of Glassport, a senior environmental science major who has interned at the Winnie Palmer Nature Reserve near St. Vincent and the Pittsburgh Zoo and has volunteered at the Wildlife Works animal rehabilitation center. They received respective cash awards of $500 and $200.