Friday, February 29, 2008

Transformation through service

By Betsy Baertlein
Feature Editor Service

“Sore muscles speak of hard work and a job well done.” This was probably not what most students were saying after winter recess, but this was the comment of senior Brittany Staver, a Saint Mary’s University student participant in Serving Others United in Love.

Groups of students from SMU traveled to Missouri, New Jersey, Louisiana, Kentucky and Montana during winter recess Feb. 9-17 in order to participate in volunteer activities. Five faculty and staff advisors traveled along with over 40 students to these destinations through the Campus Ministry SOUL program. There was also a group that went to Wisconsin during October break and a group that will be going to the Philippines this summer.

Student leaders who serve as members of the SOUL Council choose the individual volunteer sites. SOUL welcomes participants of all faiths and denominations, but some destinations have connections with the Catholic, Lasallian tradition, such as the San Miguel schools and Catholic Worker homes. This winter’s trips included such diverse missions as building houses, working in schools, working with community programs and working in homeless shelters.

The primary focus of SOUL may appear to be service, but each trip incorporates an array of activities. The four cornerstones of SOUL are faith, community, service and transformation. The goal of the trips is not only to serve others, but also to learn more about local culture and social justice issues. SOUL Staff Advisor Kami Ward said, “I learned that the stereotype of homelessness is just that, a stereotype. These were some of the nicest … people I ever met.”

The trips also lend themselves to personal growth and faith development. Sophomore Katie Klus, a student SOUL participant, said, “I think we were the ones who were truly transformed.”

Participants engage in group prayer and reflection at the end of each workday. “Oftentimes when we [reflected on] our day,” said SOUL Council Member Stephanie Marnocha, “there was just silence because we were all so overcome by what had happened during the day and how it had affected us on a personal level.”

SOUL trips prove to be an eye-opening experience for many participants, exposing them to the poverty that exists in our nation today. Marnocha said that she feels “aware now of how prevalent poverty is in our country and how people are taking steps to change that.”

An important lesson of SOUL is that hope still exists even where there is great poverty and devastation.

“I’ve learned to always have faith and hope in people and the future,” Klus said.

According to Ward, “Words cannot describe the experience nor can they accurately project what we saw there.” Many SOUL participants return with a renewed desire to serve others, both in the Winona community and elsewhere.

SOUL depends largely on fundraising to keep the cost of the trips affordable for students. Students and faculty who are interested in learning more about the program should contact Campus Ministry or a SOUL Council member. For those interested in supporting SOUL, the council will be hosting a spaghetti dinner on Friday, April 25, and the Row, Ride, Run Triathlon on Saturday, April 26, as fundraisers.

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