Learning to Serve

Article excerpt

Students in the College of Human Ecology are essential participants in two ongoing local community service initiatives. Through these service-learning projects, the student volunteers gain invaluable hands-on experience and practical insight into what being a responsible citizen means.

On an afternoon last fall, leaders from nonprofit organizations that serve the elderly in Tompkins County sat down with John Krout, director of the Ithaca College Gerontology Institute, Robert N. Riter, professor of health services administration at Ithaca College, Peter Chi, professor of consumer economics and housing in the College of Human Ecology, and Debra Dyason, field study coordinator for the college.

Krout and Dyason asked, What's needed so older people can stay in the community instead of being relegated to long-term care facilities? The human service agencies responded: how about a student-run shopping program, a fitness program that pairs seniors with students, a respite care program. Krout and Dyason left the meeting with a wish list of ways college students could become key players in helping elders remain independent, active citizens.

"What was remarkable about this meeting," Dyason says, "was that both educational institutions were reaching out to their surrounding community and asking, 'What can we do for you?'"

Service Learning in Elder Care

Filling the requests put forth by the human service agencies is now possible thanks to a grant from the New York State Foundation for Long-Term Care, Inc., which helps fund the Ithaca Partnership for Service Learning in Elder Care, a project jointly sponsored by the College of Human Ecology and Ithaca College and coordinated through the Bronfenbrenner Life Course Center. As the college's field study coordinator, Dyason is in charge of establishing partnerships with Ithaca's nonprofit agencies and at the same time creating a structure within the college that ensures that once a particular service is offered, users can rely on its continued availability. She also serves as the liaison to Ithaca College's Gerontology Institute to ensure productive collaboration between the two institutions.

The program's stability comes from its service-learning component - a requirement for volunteer service - which is being built into at least one seminar course in each of the college's academic departments and programs. The first course that's up and running is Housing for the Elderly, which is taught by Professor Peter Chi. The seminar deals with the different ways community agencies can make it possible for older adults to remain in a variety of noninstitutional settings, including planned retirement communities, subsidized housing, home-sharing projects, and accessory apartments, among others. Each student works directly with elderly citizens four to six hours per week.

Precisely what the students will do under the auspices of the course depends on requests from partnership agencies. For example, for the Housing Options for Seniors Program (HOSP), students could explain to elders who currently own their own homes the benefits of reverse mortgages. Another need is to get the word out that HOSP offers funding for the construction of separate housing units adjacent to a family member's home.

With the housing course in place, the next on Dyason's list is a course that will be offered by Josephine Allen, professor of human service studies, in fall 1996. Then she'll work on establishing service-learning components in courses in the remaining departments of the college.

"In the past when the university attempted to provide services to the community, they were often one-shot deals," Dyason notes. "So once a particular project was over, that was that. What's different about what we're doing now is that my office supports the infrastructure necessary so that community initiatives stay in place, and the courses through which student volunteers are placed are offered year after year. …