Sherri Brown, director of a local nonprofit that helps families create their own path out of poverty, gets teary-eyed when she talks about the impact made by LaGrange College’s Servant Scholars on the participants of Circles of Troup County.
“They provide childcare and help with homework while parents are in meetings,” she said. “This year, they’ll be focusing on intentional instruction, teaching social and academic skills.
“But these students do so much more. They are incredible role models for these children.”
Brown said Nate Crawford, Alex Blount and Conrad Clevenger have especially touched the young lives.
“I had one mother tell me that the time her child spends with them every week is the only time they have any kind of male influence in their lives. I’m not sure they realize it, but they are changing these children’s lives.”
A new force for change
The college’s Servant Scholars program began in the fall of 2012. The initiative prepares academically gifted and highly motivated students to become caring and ethical leaders in their communities, according to Dr. Jack Slay, the program’s director.
“Last year, the scholars completed more than 1,800 hours of service, above and beyond their usual activities as a student – classes, sports, socializing,” he said. “That is an amazing accomplishment. But even better is that they are growing every day as true servants to their community.
“These students serve, and they study the concepts of service and servant-leadership. They’re a smart bunch and, despite the demands of the program, their grades remain impressive.”
The faculty designed the initiative to be equally focused on service and academics, said Dan McAlexander, college president.
“The program very intentionally provides a two-year focus on scholarship directed at addressing community concerns,” he said. “On top of their academic-major courses, the students are required to take additional classes developed specifically for Servant Scholars.”
The inaugural class began with 12 juniors who lived in the newly renovated Broad Street Apartments.
The apartments, a gift from Callaway Foundation Inc., are a fitting residence for the Servant Scholars because of their location midway between the campus and downtown, Slay said.
“They provide the perfect location for students to work with nonprofits to study needs in the community, and to decide how to meet them.”
During its first year, Servant Scholars volunteered with Boys & Girls Club of West Georgia, Circles of Troup County, Downtown Development Authority, First United Methodist Church, Florence Hand Nursing Home, Habitat for Humanity ReStore, Harmony House, LaGrange-Troup County Humane Society and West Georgia Health Cancer Clinic.
Bart McFadden, chief professional officer for the Boys & Girls Clubs, said the students have been an inspiration.
“They are exemplary in terms of their personal initiative, ambition in life and desire to serve others,” he said. “The students who are Servant Scholars rise to an even higher level in each of those areas.”
Hometown students making a mark
Three of the scholars are from LaGrange.
Kirk Slay is one of the volunteers who works at the Boys & Girls Club in LaGrange. He visits the club twice a week to tutor children and interact with them through sports and other playtime activities.
He said his work there has sharpened his focus on his future plans – teaching underprivileged children in an inner-city school.
“It’s made me very grateful for what I had as a kid, and especially grateful for parents who went out of their way for me, even for the little things.”
Katie Anderson said her work with Circles of Troup has been “eye-opening.”
“I didn’t realize such tough situations of families living in poverty existed in my ’backyard’ until I began volunteering at Circles,” she said. “This opportunity gives me a better understanding of the diverse backgrounds I may deal with in a future classroom.”
Tyler Eady said he is honored to be accepted into this year’s class. He is joining Slay to work with the Boys & Girls Club.
“Being a Servant Scholar means that I get a chance to serve and to have the opportunity to affect someone’s life in a positive way,” he said. “We all have situations in life where we need a hand, and I think it’s awesome that a college would invest in those willing to lend that hand.”
Students involved in the program said they are transformed by the work they are doing.
As the liaison between the West Georgia Health Cancer Clinic and the West Georgia Cancer Coalition, Hunter Connell has been planning and organizing a series of breast cancer and colorectal screenings for the underserved across Troup and its neighboring counties.
Charlene McClanahan, director of oncology services at West Georgia, said Connell has been an invaluable asset.
“Through the work of her and her fellow Servant Scholars, we were able to offer colorectal cancer education, clinical breast exams and screening mammograms to 70 women in Troup and Meriwether counties who would not have had this opportunity otherwise,” McClanahan said.
Mary Hannah Robertson of Marietta creates and administers the children’s program for Harmony House, a local domestic violence shelter.
“This experience has changed me because I am learning more and more every day how to help people who have been in traumatic situations,” she said.
Feeding bodies and souls
Perhaps one of the most visible student projects has been Our Daily Bread Soup Kitchen. Kayla Cline from Cartersville interned at First United Methodist Church, where she worked with the soup kitchen and sack lunch program. There, she realized that local churches had food ministries every weekday – except Fridays.
Because she knew the budgeting system, grocery shopping and meal-planning involved, she approached her fellow Servant Scholars with the idea of forming their own soup kitchen to operate on Fridays. Soon other students joined in.
The young people gave the project their own spin. Rather than have people come through a line for a hot meal, the students decided to be “waiters” who take them their lunches, then sit down and visit with them. Broad Street Church of Christ provided the kitchen and eating area.
The summer break did not slow Our Daily Bread. Student volunteers continued showing up to man the soup kitchen – some even commuting from their hometowns every week.
President McAlexander fairly beams when he talks about the program.
“The Servant Scholars’ initiative continues to evolve into the transforming experience we had hoped it would become,” he said. “Their service resonates with the program’s mission to enhance students’ personal growth of leadership and integrity by forming a community of servant scholars who engage in active learning.”
He said he’s been moved by stories he’s heard from the students as well as the people they’ve served.
“I hear over and over again how these students are changing lives – and our community.”
Program director Slay said the senior class has begun work on its culminating project examining the issue of poverty in Troup County.
“One of the goals is to compile what they do and what they learn into a study, a document they can leave behind for both future Servant Scholars and this community as an action plan for future battlers of poverty in Troup County.”
Making a difference today and planning for the future are some of the program’s objectives.
“It’s said the best test of servant leadership is whether those being served turn around and serve others,” Slay said.
“I think that’s what the program is accomplishing. We’re creating an army of servant-scholars, students whose greatest desire is to serve, to learn, to give, to love.”