By Rachelle Pavelko
Getting to know my fellow Ernie Pyle classmates and cohort members over the past year has been an incredible experience, due in part to the amount of time we have spent together in the graduate lounge, writing furiously, guzzling coffee, and fanaticizing about <insert appropriate holiday break here>. Additionally, they are generally wonderful people with impossibly busy lives and fascinating past experiences. A common thread of being invested in the community with a desire to know more about people is apparent – it must be that inner journalist living inside.
Zach Vaughn, a second-year PhD student in the journalism program, grew up in an underdeveloped and poor area of Middle Tennessee, which was where his connection to volunteer work initially stemmed.
“I’ve always had a connection to others who grew up or are in impoverished situations, particularly those that experience systemic poverty with no foreseeable end,” he said. “This led me to initially serve in AmeriCorps a number of years ago, and these experiences have stayed with me.”
After moving to Bloomington, Zach sought an outlet to get involved with his new community. He soon joined the Circles Initiative within the South Central Community Action Program (SCCAP) – a program that strives to create personal and community connections to enact successful life change.
Zach explained that once paired with a leader (a person experiencing poverty), allies (the community volunteers) have regular meetings with their leader to discuss action plans to take steps out of poverty and set achievable goals. The objective, apart from helping others overcome poverty on their own terms, is to develop friendships and a contingent working towards overcoming poverty in the Bloomington and surrounding areas.
Through his Circles experience, Zach has witnessed real change. A former truck driver, unable to work due to medical issues, was able to go back to school, earn his GED, and was accepted to IVY Tech. The support system he had encompassing him in the form of his Circles community made the once insurmountable challenge feel far more realistic.
The desire to participate in charitable work and provide opportunity to others is also innate to Roshni Verghese, fellow classmate and second-year PhD student. Roshni’s father runs a non-profit organization in India, Byrraju Foundation, which assists villages with development, hygiene, education, and health issues. During the past academic year, Roshni was able to serve the Bloomington community through her volunteer work at Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard, a food bank that provides healthy, nutritious options to those in need.
“I have always been curious to get an insider’s perspective of how food banks operate and the impact they have on a community,” she said. “The voluntary nature and the network of community-conscious organizations, farms, and people that fuel the food bank is remarkable, and that’s what got me to sign up and help out.”
An average day for Roshni at Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard involved stocking shelves with various products and produce, as well as packaging charitable donations from large organizations, local farms, and individual walk-in donations.
“The open mindedness and the hospitality of all the people that work at Mother Hubbard’s is commendable,” she said. “It is extremely easy for people that don’t have to worry about where their next meal is coming from or those that have basic luxuries in life to judge those that do not, and the people here [reminded me of] the way my parents raised me, that nothing good can come from such distanced judgment.”
I, too, have been thinking about ways to get involved and volunteer for the past few years. As a lifelong student, time, energy, and a stable ZIP code are sometimes hard to come by. After moving to Bloomington last summer, I decided it was time to find an organization that would best fit with my volunteer aspirations.
Last fall, I filled out an application with Big Brothers, Big Sisters to serve as a “big sister” to a little girl who was looking for a mentor and friend. After a few months of interviews, training, and waiting on the match process, I was paired with a 10-year-old girl – a lifelong resident of Bloomington, a lover of music, crafts, playing outside, and taking adventures.
The “littles” within the Big Brothers, Big Sisters program are all experiencing some form of adversity, whether it be a challenging family life, financial or housing instability, or difficulty with schoolwork and peers. Families that enroll their children in the program realize that a mentor might be able to provide additional positive reinforcement.
Being paired with my little sister has been a mutually beneficial experience. I have always loved spending time with kids, and, more importantly, I love acting like one. I now have a fulltime friend who expects me to be fun, silly, and happy every time we get together. She serves as my excuse to go to all the latest Disney movies that I’m secretly dying to see. (Same goes for the new exhibits at Wonderlab, and frequent trips to Chocolate Moose.) I’ve seen a lot of what Bloomington has to offer with her by my side. Each Saturday we pick a new adventure and spend a few hours talking about her school week, her friends, and the constant excitement in her ever-evolving elementary school life.
It’s no secret that graduate school can be challenging, demanding, anxiety-inducing… there are a lot of descriptive words that can be used here. Having a few hours each weekend to pack a picnic with a 10-year-old and hear about the week’s playground antics is incredibly therapeutic. It’s a great personal reminder that I need to relax. On the flip side, it also makes me realize how grateful I am to be in graduate school, doing what I love and working toward a future career that I’m incredibly excited about.
The Big Brothers, Big Sisters organization has definitely proven to be the right fit for me and a welcomed addition to my new life in Bloomington. Through this process, I just hope I can make my little sister laugh half as much as she makes me smile. Maybe it’s time for me to try roller-skating again…