The season of Thanksgiving is a time when people gather together in unity to offer gratitude and reflect on the many ways that God has blessed them. Thanksgiving is also a time to offer one’s prayers, time, and energy to serve those living on the margins of society. Giving back to the local or global community is one way that you can show gratitude for the many blessings in your life. During this season of Thanksgiving, we look at how Catholic colleges and universities are living out this call by giving back to their local communities.
Creighton University is engaging the student body and citizens of the local Omaha community by coming together to support and aid people experiencing homelessness. According to the university, “On any given night in the Omaha/Council Bluffs area, approximately 1,500 people are experiencing homelessness.” Project Homeless Connect Omaha (PHCO) came about as a reaction to this issue. Creighton is the first college campus to use the Project Homeless Connect model, a unique campus-to-community effort that has seen major success throughout the nation. PHCO is “dedicated to serving individuals experiencing homelessness by providing health screenings and access to community resources in one convenient location,” notes the project’s website. It serves people experiencing homelessness through both immediate and long-term relief in order to help them overcome their homelessness rather than temporarily relieve their situation. Project staffers invite campus and community members to participate in this large-scale event. Students, faculty, staff, and other volunteers help with setting up before the event and cleaning up afterward, act as navigators assisting guests and offering directions, and serve in any other ways needed. PHCO allows for the entire campus community to serve those experiencing homelessness in an empowering and effective way.
The services provided through PHCO fall into two categories: programs and assistance, and health screenings. The programs and assistance offered include veterans programs; state, local, and federal assistance programs; housing programs; and legal, educational, and résumé help. Clients have the opportunity to meet with professionals in their field and schedule follow-up appointments. The health screenings include dental, physical and mental exams, vision assessments, and immunizations, as well as numerous other screenings and evaluations. PHCO gives clients access to necessary services that would otherwise not be available to them and are often times overlooked. For example, according to the PHCO 2017 guest survey results, of the 558 guests that attended PHCO, about 15 percent noted dental services as the most valuable screenings offered because they are normally among the more difficult services to access for those who are homeless. The flood of positive messages found among the survey results is an indication that the Omaha community is extremely grateful for this opportunity offered by Creighton University.
Gannon University students serve at the university’s annual Give Day.
Another university that continually emphasizes its commitment to giving back to the local community is Gannon University. The university program Erie-Gannon Alliances to Improve Neighborhood Sustainability (Erie-GAINS) has intensified Gannon’s commitment to the Erie community. Established in 2010, Erie-GAINS “is a long-term, mutually beneficial community initiative designed to expand Gannon’s efforts to support the common good of surrounding neighborhoods [and] aids the university in focusing efforts to maximize impact in a well-defined, contiguous and manageable area,” as noted on the website. The five primary urban development issues Erie-GAINS focuses on are education, health and wellness, business and economy, environmental sustainability, and quality of life. Students participate in Erie-GAINS through a variety of ways, such as by creating a comprehensive, online Human Services Directory, which is a resource to showcase services provided in Erie County; by providing free physicals for residents and neighbors of the Housing Authority of the City of Erie’s John E. Horan Garden Apartments and MidCity Towers; and by creating a county garden to grow produce that is then donated to local food pantries and organizations. Gannon’s annual “Give Day” also allows for students from different majors who participate in Erie-GAINS to come together as a community for one day to give back to the town of Erie. Many other examples of service can be found by viewing the Erie-Gains Viewbook 2016. Gannon University’s dedication to a value-centered education allows for the campus to develop a partnership with the local Erie community as a way to give back in a variety of ways.
Another university actively responding to the call of action during the season of Thanksgiving is Boston College. The Boston College student organization Rallying Against Contemporary Human Trafficking (R.E.A.C.T) seeks to “raise awareness about human trafficking and how it is one of the most egregious social justice problems of our time,” explains the group on its Facebook page. R.E.A.C.T. notes that its “focus in particular is on human trafficking within the city of Boston, so to connect students with direct action within the anti-trafficking movement in Boston.” One way that R.E.A.C.T. lived this mission out was by partnering with local Boston outreach ministry Bags of Hope Ministries. According to founder Jasmine Grace, Bags of Hope was founded “as a way to reach out in a practical way to women living on the streets or in programs serving women affected by trafficking, prostitution, addiction and homelessness.” Boston College partnered with Bags of Hope by collecting necessary items such as socks, toothpaste, and toothbrushes and packing them into bags for the women. This partnership allowed students to aid those in their local community in a direct and immediate way.
In Florida, Saint Leo University is acting on its mission to be a “living-learning-serving community” by giving back to people with disabilities in the local community. The university partnered with local Florida non-profit Caps of Love, which uses recycling in order to provide valuable resources for people with disabilities. According to founder Valerie Mathieu, Caps of Love is dedicated to “educating the public on how to identify and recycle correctly in order to provide wheelchairs to the physically challenged under the age of 21.” One day last spring, Saint Leo University collected 12,000 pounds of plastic bottle caps, filling 21 pallets. Students, faculty, staff, and local community members gathered together to sort the caps and then loaded a truck that delivered them to a Tampa recycling center. The proceeds received from the recycling center were then donated to Caps of Love, where the funds ultimately will aid those in the community seeking access to wheelchairs. Senior coordinator for residence life Heidi D’Ambrosio commented, “Saint Leo University participates in this program to promote giving of our time and realizing that together as a community we can make a difference.”
Another university dedicated to giving back is Mount Mercy University. One way that Mount Mercy gives back to the local Cedar Rapids community is through its partnership with Foundation 2 Youth Shelter. According to the goals of Foundation 2 Youth Shelter, it is “designed to restore appropriate parent-child roles; explore solutions to troubling issues and build skills in order to prevent or resolve future conflicts; and focus on preventing runaway behavior, suicide attempts, child abuse, family breakup, school failure, or the placement of a runaway or homeless youth.” Students who volunteer at the shelter give their time each week by spending evenings with youth mentoring, playing games, and getting to know each other. The partnership between Mount Mercy and Foundation 2 Youth Shelter allows those at the shelter to see the possibilities that life offers. It also encourages them to grow in their values, dream, and envision their future.
It is important to reflect on different ways that Catholic colleges and universities are giving back to their local communities because it leads us to reflect on how we are servings the needs of those in our communities. Thanksgiving offers the perfect opportunity to do this, as a season of unity and a time to reflect on our many blessings.