January 24, 2008

Student volunteers make a difference in region

by Christi Mathis

CARBONDALE, Ill. — The spirit of volunteerism is alive and well among Southern Illinois University Carbondale students.

During the fall 2007 semester, 2,408 students volunteered their time in a variety of ways, contributing 16,415 hours of service to SIUC and the entire region through Saluki Volunteer Corps, according to Mythili Rundblad, coordinator of Student Development. In addition, 15 members of the SIUC chapter of Land of Lincoln AmeriCorps provided more than 4,600 hours of tutoring and mentoring to children in five area school districts. Pre-kindergarten through eighth grade children in the Carbondale Elementary School District and in the Murphysboro, Elverado, Unity Point and Du Quoin districts benefited.

"Through both of our programs, it is really rewarding to see our students build bridges between the campus, the immediate area and even with the whole region," Rundblad said. "One of our missions at SIUC is to prepare students to be involved, engaged citizens and both Saluki Volunteer Corps and Land of Lincoln AmeriCorps do that. Moreover, the students bring so much energy and so many ideas to the programs they're involved with. They have a perspective that some of us who are on the other side of the table might not."

Kyle Hauenstein, a native of Mediapolis, Iowa, knew few people in Southern Illinois when he arrived at SIUC. Now a senior majoring in business education, he's become very immersed in the region through his work with the Saluki Volunteer Corps and AmeriCorps.

"I've gotten to know a lot of people in the community," Hauenstein said. "I've met business people, respected community leaders, adults from all spectrums. I've networked and they've really helped me through college. I've gotten to work with kids too."

Hauenstein helped organize a "Books for Africa" drive and has been very active in Upward, a youth sports league sponsored by Murdale Baptist Church in Carbondale. He coached in the youth league and currently is the director. Hauenstein, who eventually wants to be a high school teacher and coach, said he's gained invaluable experience coaching basketball and football with less pressure than typically found in school sports and has had so much fun working with the youngsters.

"It's great," Hauenstein said. "It's so much fun to see their faces. I'll be in Wal-Mart or someplace and they'll come running up to me hollering, 'Hey coach!' Many of the kids I work with are from single-parent homes, often underprivileged. Some of them have already had struggles in their early lives. It's good to give them a bit of a role model in an adult who's young enough they can relate to and feel comfortable with and that they identify with. Some of the kids have even invited me to their houses. It's wonderful. The parents are great too. There's proof of the academic and athletic improvements kids have made, how they've caught up and closed the gap. Sometimes parents tell me they're surprised at how I've gotten their shy kid to be able to do something, come out of their shell with the extra attention we're able to give them."

Jim Muhlhausen, a senior forestry major from Palatine, has been involved with Saluki Volunteer Corps for about two years. Much of his work has been done at Giant City State Park, where he helps keep the park clean and applies the technical knowledge acquired in the classroom by helping with hiking trail construction and maintenance and operating heavy equipment.

"I've gained a sense of satisfaction that I have made a difference in Southern Illinois and believe that my actions have effects that reach around the world," Muhlhausen said. "I get an opportunity to work to make Giant City State Park a better place so that everyone can enjoy it as much as I do. I hope and believe that my hard work will make a visitor happy and they can go home that night where their happiness can rub off on a family member. That happiness is shared with another, who shares it with another on down the line until the world is a little bit better place to live.

"I know that the people I have seen and worked with have gained a better appreciation for the outdoors and the efforts that go into the protection of our natural world," Muhlhausen added. "My efforts have also provided me with new friendships, networking with professionals in my field, job offers and references and other benefits."

Iesha Moná Wilson of Carbondale loves being around children and helping them, so it seemed natural for the senior English major to join AmeriCorps in 2007. She's been working with fourth graders at Du Quoin Elementary School, helping with the before- and after-school program and assisting in the classroom. Wilson plans to pursue a law degree and then work in community relations and legal services, helping those who perhaps can't afford to hire lawyers. She previously worked in retail but said she is hooked now on working with children and helping others.

"It's not just a nine to five job, not just selling something," Wilson said. "People are actually getting help because of me and my team members. We're doing something worthwhile that makes a difference in people's lives."

After a recent experience, Wilson no longer doubts the impact one person can have on the lives of others. She recalls a student in the Du Quoin classroom was preparing to move as the class was working on expository writing, practicing by writing letters. Although she hadn't worked extensively with the young boy, Wilson said she was very touched that he wrote of what an inspiration she was to him.

"That was really moving," Wilson said. "I hadn't really had a lot of time with him and yet he said I was an inspiration. To reach out and make a difference in someone's life, there's nothing like it."

Samantha Okon, an Arlington Heights senior majoring in communication disorders and sciences, has been involved with both Saluki Volunteer Corps and Americorps since mid-2007. Through Saluki Volunteers Corps she's helped spruce up Carbondale's Main Street with clean-up and planting bulbs, assisted with blood drives and helped with the Illinois High School Association state girls golf tournament.

"There are so many different activities you can do, you're never bored!" Okon said. "There are tons of activities you can choose to help out with."

The list of organizations that benefit from SIUC volunteerism is extensive. Major beneficiaries during the fall semester included Beautify Southern Illinois with 567 hours, Adopt-A-Spot with 553 hours, Boys and Girls Club with 357 hours, Red Cross blood drives with 204 hours, The Women's Center Inc. with 134 hours, care packages for U.S. soldiers with 124 hours, I Can Read Program with 148 hours and 485 hours given to various environmental efforts including Bioneers conference, Giant City State Park and Shawnee National Forest, according to Rundblad.

The benefit these and the many other organizations gain from volunteers is really immeasurable, Rundblad said. But, she notes that Independent Sector, a nonpartisan coalition of charities, foundations, corporations and individuals, placed the value of volunteer time at $18.77 per hour in 2006, the most current figures available. The Saluki Volunteer Corps members receive no remuneration for the volunteerism while AmeriCorps members earn a nominal college tuition stipend.

The complete list of SIUC volunteer opportunities is online at www.stddev.siu.edu or available in the Student Development office on the third floor of the SIUC Student Center. Some are one-day or short-term projects while others are ongoing efforts. Anyone interested in Saluki Volunteer Corps or AmeriCorps can get more information from Rundblad or graduate assistant Jill Pierard by calling 618/453-5714. Rundblad noted that SIUC is one of a select group of universities with an AmeriCorps program. The SIUC program dates to fall 1995 and has "so many years of success," she said.

"When I talk to the students involved with Saluki Volunteer Corps or AmeriCorps, they tell me it really feels good to be contributing to the community," Rundblad said. "Many times, they pick an organization or a cause to get involved in because it's something they believe in, something they're passionate about."

The impact goes both directions, Okon said. She plans to attend graduate school and become a speech language pathologist, and her work through AmeriCorps has been highly beneficial to her and her first-grade charges at Parrish School in Carbondale, she said.

"I really wanted to help the kids in the community and with their emerging literacy," Okon said. "I'm gaining valuable experience to help me as a speech therapist. It's a lot of fun, working with the kids and getting involved. It's really paid off too. I've learned a lot about kids, how they think, how they feel. And it's amazing the impact that just reading a book to them can have."

Through her volunteer work, Okon has joined International Friends Club, where she's forged friendships helping international students improve their English language skills.

"I never thought just talking to someone could make a difference in their lives," Okon said. "It meant a lot to me to realize that you can give so little and have it mean so much. Another thing I learned is that while people usually think of volunteering as work, it's never felt like work. It's just something that's really needed and that can really help people and the community. It brings people together. And I never felt like there was a time I didn't get something out of it too."

Muhlhausen agrees, saying he only has one regret about his volunteerism at SIUC.

"All I know is that I wish I had gotten involved sooner in my college career," he said. "It's over before you know it."