COOP Seeks to Build Lasting Relationships

COOP staff Jeff McArn, Amy James, Mary Phillips '11, Jeremy Wattles, Lisa Nassimos
COOP staff Jeff McArn, Amy James, Mary Phillips '11, Jeremy Wattles, Lisa Nassimos
On October 1, a new era in Hamilton community service was ushered in with the official opening in the Chapel of Hamilton’s new Community Outreach and Opportunity Project (COOP), a coalition of students and faculty that aims to increase Hamilton’s involvement with community service. The ceremony featured short addresses by staff members involved in COOP, as well as keynote speaker Steve Culbertson '79, president and CEO of Youth Service America, an organization dedicated to increasing availability of service and volunteer projects to young people. The talks were followed by a reception in COOP’s new office on the third floor of the Chapel.

After a short introduction by President Stewart and Dean of Faculty Joseph Urgo, Director of Outreach and Orientation Amy James spoke on the importance of COOP as a resource for staff and students who wish to make a difference in the community. Following James was Assistant Director of AmeriCorps VISTA Jeremy Wattles, who emphasized Hamilton’s already stellar history of community service through organizations like HAVOC and events like Urban Service Experience, Alternative Spring Break, and Hamilton Serves.

COOP Advisory Board Chair and College Chaplain Jeff McArn then extolled the effect that he believes COOP will have on Hamilton, specifically in the construction of relationships that will last more than four years, something that is hard to accomplish with a student-run organization like HAVOC because student turnover is so frequent. McArn then, to rousing applause, introduced keynote speaker Steve Culbertson ’79.

Culbertson has dedicated much of his life to helping others, specifically finding innovative ways for people to make a charitable difference in the world. He started by laying out some numbers: The United States has a population of just over 300 million, and those 300 million people donated $309 billion last year to charitable causes and non-profit organizations. No other country in the world can compare to that total. “And who is it that’s writing these checks?” Culbertson asked. The answer? People who volunteer their time are also the people who also donate their personal money.

The way to get people involved in volunteer efforts in their community is to start young, Culbertson emphasized. People who volunteer as children are more likely to stay involved when they grow up. It’s the same principle as with any sort of manners or etiquette that are instilled in children at young ages. If kids can value volunteerism and actually appreciate that they are making a difference in the world, they will continue to think that way as they grow older.

Culbertson’s organization, Youth Service America (YSA), looks to make it easier for young people to get involved. YSA lends money to individuals between the ages of five and 25 who have plans to make a difference in their community. YSA is now partnered with schools, hospitals, libraries and non-profit organizations in more than 100 countries.

The main problem, Culbertson thinks, is that adults tend not to think that kids can make a difference. It’s exactly this pessimism that is crippling today’s youth. In a nation where only one out of every three children graduates from high school, it is obvious something is wrong. In speaking with high school dropouts, Culbertson and his colleagues discovered that the number one reason for students to drop out of high school is boredom. They feel disengaged and see no use for education.

The solution to this problem is to get students involved, not just in an isolated academic environment but also in the broader community, which will help them put things in context. Culbertson thinks that once students get engaged, they can see that education has relevance and that there are problems that they feel personally motivated to try to fix.

In underprivileged communities, one thing that Culbertson emphasized was the participation of poor and disadvantaged children in service projects. This is an effort to “flip the paradigm,” and make underprivileged students actors, rather than recipients, in community service programs. Helping other people is empowering, no matter how small the favor.

It has been Culbertson’s goal to “make space for young people to make a difference.” In this day and age, he said we can ill afford to watch passively and expect the world to change itself. Young people do have the creativity and passion to enact change, what they usually lack is the opportunity. COOP is a way for Hamilton students to partner with faculty members in a way that was not possible before and will benefit both Hamilton and the local community. It’s essential for privileged people to take such steps because, as Culbertson said, “If Hamilton people aren’t changing the world, nobody is changing the world.”

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