Not-for-profits grow as college students take hands-on approach

February 19, 2007

These days, a college education is more than long lectures and thick textbooks.

Just ask leaders at Timmy Foundation and College Mentors for Kids, two Indianapolis not-for-profits that are growing as more universities embrace service learning--an educational approach that encourages students to incorporate academics into community service.

College Mentors has 700 university volunteers who work with underprivileged elementary school students every week, up from 30 when it launched in 1996. And Timmy Foundation's 10 college chapters are planning 15 medical mission trips for 2007, five years after the first chapter's first trip to Honduras.

Whether it takes the form of extracurricular activities like those or classes built into a university's curriculum, service learning clearly is gaining steam in Indiana. This fall, 26 college and university leaders approved a plan to integrate service-learning programs into campuses statewide.

Indiana Campus Compact is leading the charge. The Indianapolis-based organization, which had six charter members when it was formed in 1993, supports 45 campuses today. It is one of 31 state branches of the national Campus Compact organization, which has almost 1,100 member campuses.

Universities have added service to their academic missions for a few reasons, ICC Executive Director Jackie McCracken said. Along with instilling a sense of civic duty into students, service-learning programs can help universities connect to community resources and present a positive image.

And they strengthen students' connections as well.

"If [students are] more involved in service in the community, they're more likely to succeed and stay," McCracken said.

'Pang of consciousness'

ICC uses funding from Indianapolis-based Lilly Endowment Inc., membership fees and donations to award grants to students and faculty who do exemplary service-learning work. It also provides resources and training to its campuses.

Butler University is a charter member, and other campuses also are embracing the concept. Other local member campuses include Martin University, Marian College and the University of Indianapolis--which is planning an international symposium on service learning for May.

IUPUI's Office of Service Learning has helped add a service-learning component to 157 elective and required classes in recent years.

"A number of institutions of all types are increasing the role of service learning in their curriculum," said Bob Bringle, director of IUPUI's Center for Service & Learning.

He attributes the trend to a greater sense of civic duty after the Cold War. In the 1990s, he said, older generations worried young people were losing a sense of democracy and public service, and universities responded to the "pang of consciousness" by making service a priority.

Something seems to be working. An October report from the Corporation for National & Community Service showed that 3.3 million college students volunteered in 2005--a 20-percent increase from 2002 and more than double the growth rate for adult volunteers.

Although the numbers are encouraging, not all those students worked through service-learning programs, and many of them volunteered sporadically.

Still, advocates say service learning is a step in the right direction if it gets students thinking about the world outside their classrooms.

"One of the great things about a service-learning course is students are required to reflect on their experiences," ICC's McCracken said.

Instructors might ask students to keep journals or to talk with other students about their work. Most IUPUI instructors require students in service-learning classes to write a paper reflecting on their experience, Bringle said.

Community-based projects also tend to encourage students to contemplate society's problems, such as how poverty and hunger can exist in the world's wealthiest nation, McCracken said.

Service learning has become more prevalent as universities have developed systems to nurture it, said Bryan Orander, president of local consulting firm Charitable Advisors LLC.

And organizations that use college-age volunteers have seen the result. In the past, service groups sometimes struggled to collaborate with universities because few of them had specific programs or departments to respond.

"We're seeing easier access and better coordination," he said.

Planning for growth

Case in point: the growth of College Mentors for Kids and Timmy Foundation.

Hoping to motivate underprivileged first- through fourth-graders to pursue higher education, College Mentors pairs college students with community children for weekly on-campus activities.

What started with 30 mentor-youth pairs at Butler and Indiana University has grown to about 700 pairs at 19 Indiana colleges and Illinois State University.

Revenue has grown as well. Last year, the organization reported income of $702,858. This year, it already is on track to increase that to $1.2 million, said incoming CEO Erin Slater.

Last year, the agency adopted a three-year plan that calls for increasing service activities at current chapters, adding more universities inside and outside Indiana, and creating programs to target fifth- through eighth-graders.

It has a plan to fund the growth, too. Now supported primarily by foundations and corporations, CMFK wants to develop a major-gift and planned-giving program and pursue state, federal and national grants. Alumni donations increase each year, and about 25 percent of all former mentors are registered in a newly formed alumni association, Slater said.

College Mentors has managed its growth by focusing first on developing quality programming and then on sustaining it. Considering those factors before making expansion decisions has allowed the organization to grow only as quickly as resources are available, Slater said.

Timmy Foundation has experienced similar success.

Founded in 1997 by Indianapolis physician Charles Dietzen, the organization operated on a small scale for the first few years as Dietzen and some colleagues raised money to make medical mission trips abroad.

In 2000, they took a group of high school students on a trip to Haiti and, by 2002, members of the first chapter at Indiana University were bound for Honduras.

Now, it has 10 college chapters--including one each in Kentucky, Colorado and North Carolina--and 15 trips planned for 2007 to South America, the Caribbean, Africa and Asia.

Students raise $900 to $1,500 to pay their own way on each trip. When they're not traveling, members recruit medical professionals to go along, help pack medical supplies, and enter medical data into computers.

Although pre-med is a common major for participants, a broadening range of students from other disciplines goes on the trips, Executive Director Scott Keller said.

In its last fiscal year, Timmy Foundation posted revenue of a little more than $2 million, most from in-kind contributions of medical equipment and supplies. Keller expects revenue to reach $2.5 million this year.

Although Timmy Foundation's progress pleases Keller, he said the organization wants to "grow smart rather than grow quick." To that end, last year, it left rented space in Glendale Mall and bought the former Bicycle Action Project building at 22nd and Pennsylvania streets.

Student motivation

Keller and Slater credit students' enthusiasm--and community spirit--for fueling the growth of their organizations.

"It's all due to our college students," Keller said. "[They] inspired and pushed us to grow."

In fact, new chapters usually result when students at member universities share their experience with students elsewhere, Keller said.

"Every year, it becomes easier to spread to new campuses," Slater agreed. "If college students are transferring from one campus to another, they ask if they can bring the program with them."

Slater said she finds college students willing to volunteer--especially when they discover spending time with children can be an escape from daily life.

"They really harness the enthusiasm and energy that is needed to excite young children about higher education," she said. "For two hours every week, they can be a kid again."

For others, the experience is even more profound.

"Once I saw the challenges that community was up against, and once I got to know people in the community, it didn't feel like an option anymore," said Ashley Raynor, a 2006 Indiana University nursing graduate who went to Honduras three times with Timmy Foundation. "It felt more like a responsibility."

Now a pediatric nurse at St. Vincent Children's Hospital, Raynor said the trips solidified her career choice. Eventually, she hopes to join Timmy Foundation's board.

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