In his book, “The Art of Happiness,” the Dalai Lama and co-author Dr. Howard Cutler examine the benefits of compassionate action. In the course of one dialogue, the Dalai Lama states:
“…if people have compassion, naturally, that’s something they can count on; even if they have economic problems and their fortune declines, they still have something to share with fellow human beings.”
Later in the chapter the opinion of the Dalai Lama is reinforced by Dr. Cutler who explains the benefits of compassion and altruism beyond mere speculation. Cutler states:
“In recent years there have been many studies that support the idea that developing compassion and altruism has a positive impact on our physical and emotional health.”
David McClelland, a psychologist a Harvard University, showed a group of students a film of Mother Theresa working among Calcutta’s sick and poor. The students reported that the film stimulated feelings of compassion. Afterward, he analyzed the students’ saliva and found an increase in immunoglobulin-A, an antibody that can help fight respiratory infections. In another study, James House, at the University of Michigan Research Center, investigators found that doing volunteer work, interacting with others in a warm, compassionate way, dramatically increased life expectancy and probably overall vitality as well.”
Obviously, there are benefits to participation in our community beyond karma and beyond alleviating personal feelings of guilt. At CSU, the bridges to these benefits are many and they are hidden in plain sight in our own student center.
On the bottom floor of the Lory Student Center, at the far north end of the building, is the a small office where, through the day, a few employees and volunteers work diligently and stop often to smile and help those around them.
But these people are not just willing to help their fellow employees. More so than probably any other organization, the work of the Office of Service Learning and Volunteer Programs (SLVP) helps the community around it. From its small office in the corner of the student center, SLVP extends its reach far beyond CSU to non-profit organizations across the state and the continent. And, on campus, SLVP extends its reach to thousands of students each year, pairing students with organizations needing volunteers.
“We work to create a relationship between the campus and the community through volunteer work and service learning,” said Nick Horras, SLVP Coordinator for Alternative Spring Breaks. “We seek to develop student leaders who will work towards solutions to social problems.”
Horras’ experience with SLVP mirrors that of many of his fellow employees. Besides working as a volunteer for CSU’s Environmental Learning Center, he has worked with SLVP’s Campus Club and Special Needs Swim as well as participating in a few of SLVP’s Alternative Spring Breaks.
“When you work here you get involved in everything,” Horras said. “Everyone scratches each other’s backs.”
This is only fitting considering the nature of SLVP’s mission, but the real focus of their work is in helping students realize the benefits and availability of volunteer opportunities.
Despite carrying out several annual service programs, SLVP supplies students with a “Service Bank.” At any time, students who wish to get involved in their community can fill out the equivalent of an availability request through SLVP and their Service Bank will then seek out a match where the student’s services can be employed.
“You can request to work a couple of hours, a day, even a year and we will find a place for you to help out,” Horras said.
SLVP supplies countless volunteer opportunities for students at CSU who are independently looking to volunteer, but where SLVP is most directly active is through a number of annual programs that they carry out. Two of the best known of these are the annual Cans Around the Oval and CSUnity programs.
Every October, CSU students are called upon by SLVP to donate non-perishable foods to the Larimer County Food Bank. Last year alone, over 60,000 lbs. of food was collected.
CSUnity is SLVP’s other most known program. According to Horras, the day of service, on average, employs 700-900 students who help several non-profit organizations throughout the community. Students usually work on environmental projects. During last year’s CSUnity day, students cleaned up litter, painted storm drains, and built bridges at CSU’s Environmental Learning Center.
SLVP does not just build bridges for the environment, however. The organization is also very active in connecting college students to groups in the community who need positive outside help.
SLVP aids in mentoring elementary school children through their Campus Club and they help people with disabilities through their Special Needs Swim program. Both Campus Club and Special Needs Swim are weekly programs that take place each Sunday during the school year; each program is aimed at fostering bonds not only of help, but also of friendship.
The most involved of SLVP’s programs, however, occur only on an annual basis and due to their quickly raising popularity and limited space; an application process has been installed. SLVP’s Alternative Spring Break programs are one of the program’s most unique features and also one of the most important.
Selected applicants, picked based on their motivation for getting involved, their willingness to help and their commitment to the service that they are seeking to do, travel to various parts of the continent to aid communities facing severe problems.
Last spring break eight trips were offered and out of over 120 applicants, 64 were selected to go. Service opportunities included: raising money and assisting victims of AIDS in Seattle; mentoring Arapaho Indian youth in Wyoming; working toward youth alcohol and drug prevention in New Mexico; feeding the homeless in Chicago; restoring land in Santa Fe; youth mentoring and environmental work on Catalina Island in California; working to build homes for the poor in Portland; and working with the Yakama on tribal issues in Toppenish, Wash.
According to Horras, even though the trips are for only a week, most trip members work nearly every day on the trip and usually come away from their trip with a strong interest in community involvement. Several applicants each year, said Horras, are return applicants and most attempt to become part of the leadership teams that head each trip.
Becky and Ryan Raeke are both Service Bank Coordinators for SLVP. The two siblings have helped plan and participated in SLVP’s Alternative Spring Breaks.
According to Becky, who worked to make a New Mexico ranch more ecologically sustainable last spring break, the trips involve their members in projects that they would not do otherwise. She said, “just to be able to learn about the world” was benefit enough for her to appreciate the program.
Becky’s brother, Ryan, also expressed his sentiment that the spring break service alternatives were opened his eyes to problems that persist and go generally unnoticed except through the work of non-profit organizations and volunteers.
“Going on the trip made me realize that there is definitely real poverty in America,” said Ryan, who was part of last spring break’s trip to Washington where volunteers aided the impoverished Yakama Indians. “You get to open your eyes to different issues in different places that you never think about.”
SLVP’s Alternative Spring Breaks may not have the chaos of Cancun or the glamour of “Girls Gone Wild,” but, as Horras and many other volunteers have noted, the volunteer experience is far more profound than any drunken epiphanies that are reached on the average college break.
“We try to move away from the beer and beaches spring break,” said Horras, who explained that SLVP would be planning eight more trips for the upcoming school year. “These are probably the only breaks that you can put on your resume. Sure, the average spring break is fun, but there are much more valuable things to do with your time.”
Nick Horras about spring breaks