She claimed that she was nervous, but after managing a program for the poor, elderly and disabled, Deena Walls, Assistant Director of the Grove Christian Outreach center, knows how to overcome adverisity.
Walls, along with representatives from Pathways, Williamsburg Housing and Redevelopment, Grove Christian Outreach, Avalon and Community Action Agency, are agents of change in the community. Whether they are encouraging tutoring for disadvantaged children or teaching finance classes to low-income families, all of the programs endeavor to aid needy members of the community.
Walls and other volunteers spoke at the Office for Community Engagement and Services’s Evening of Gratitude last Thursday.
In past years, the event was an opportunity for students to write letters to civil rights leaders, but this year, the event had another focus in mind: the relationship between the campus and the community. The Stand-Up Campaign and OCES honored various groups to show gratitude for the variety of services they provide and to encourage a discussion between students and local service organizations.
Tina Purcell ’13, tutor coordinator for Project All, attended the event to celebrate the guests of honor and to learn from their experiences.
“Sometimes issues can seem overwhelming, and it’s important to always remember that there are others engaging in similar struggles that you can benefit from and make connections with,” Purcell said. “Because ultimately, as important as community organizing is, what we’re really trying to do is attack a larger problem.”
While the larger problem of community engagement united the various groups, each group also offered a unique opportunity to combat the various disparities within the Williamsburg area.
Director of Community Engagement Melody Porter recognized the diversity of the programs as evidence of many opportunities for community service within Williamsburg.
“The diversity of the groups is truly beautiful. People are coming at issues from all different angles, but their goal is the same,” Porter said.
Several groups aim to help disadvantaged youth within Williamsburg, but they each approach the goal in a different way. Williamsburg and James City County’s Community Action Agency promotes Project Discovery, a program to help disadvantaged youth attend college or trade school while Avalon, a shelter and resource for battered women and children, has a mentor program for youth in transitional housing.
Sarah Meacham, executive director for Avalon, stressed the fact that volunteers are an integral part of the mentor program.
“To be able to link a young boy in our shelter with a college student also shows that they can dream and they can be in the same place if they work hard and try,” Meacham said. “It’s a beautiful exchange in that way.”
The Community Action Agency even helps to weatherize homes for those who cannot afford to protect their homes from the elements.
As testament to the power of community service, Walls acknowledged the role of the Community Action Agency in her own life. Walls recently weatherized her home through the Community Action Agency’s program; she stands out as proof that the kindness of others through community service often has a reciprocal effect on the community.
Kristina Snader, a vista for the OCES, expressed declarations of gratitude before each speaker deliver his or her address. She acknowledged the importance that the recognition of the groups had on students who attended the event.
“The biggest emphasis of the event is giving students role models that are change-makers,” Snader said.
Will Morris ’11, who helped organize the event, stressed that the recognition of each group’s efforts could help the community and the students.
“Something as simple as this recognition can reignite their flame and keep them going the extra mile,” Morris said. “People need to be recognized for the good things they do.”
For Walls, the community engagement is more about personal involvement in the community than it is just statistics.
“My dream for our community is that we would never dehumanize the process of helping people,” Walls said. “Everyone has a story, a hurt, a pain, and when we engage them in sharing, walk along side of them, have an empathetic ear, we diffuse the emotional rollercoaster that they’re probably going through and allow them a voice.”