Megan Davis, Hunter Malone, Keisha Morgan, Kaylee Raymer and Abby Wackerly represent Berea’s People Who Care at a rally at the capitol in Frankfort.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of People Who Care (PWC), Berea College’s longest-running service organization. Established in 1968 from a student’s proposal and a modest donation by then-president Willis D. Weatherford Jr., the program sent student volunteers to visit patients at Eastern State Hospital in Lexington. Over the years, PWC expanded its services to other extended-care facilities in the area. In recent years, the organization has become a more robust social justice and advocacy program.
Housed at the Campus Christian Center for decades, PWC was moved to the Center for Excellence in Learning through Service (CELTS) after the formation of the center in 2000, along with Habitat for Humanity.
“The historical significance of PWC is huge,” said Sarah Rohrer, CELTS associate director. “We talk to our students every year about how they are standing on the shoulders of the people who came before them.”
PWC practices what Rohrer calls “relational service work,” involving educating oneself and the campus about social issues and providing the opportunity to address those issues directly through service.
“Students are empowered by PWC,” Rohrer said. “It’s easy to be overwhelmed with what’s going on in the world. The PWC model invites students to understand they have the power to take action. If they can learn the power of writing a letter, making a phone call, inviting friends to engage an issue or being purposeful about where and how they spend their money, then they can graduate with a heightened sense of the power they have at their fingertips.”
Two of those empowered students are Megan Davis ’18 and Kali Bruns ’20. Bruns serves as the student program manager of PWC, while Davis, during her senior year, was a student community service associate who supported the work of a suite of CELTS programs, including PWC, Habitat for Humanity, Adopt-A-Grandparent, Berea Tutoring, Berea Buddies, Berea Teen Mentoring, Hispanic Outreach Program, Bonner Scholars and Service Learning.
Davis, a child and family studies/peace and social justice studies double major from Mount Washington, Ky., says working in community service gives students a way to act upon the societal problems they learn about in their classes.
“At this point in our lives,” she said, “we have a lot of energy and passion. Learning about systemic inequities in our classes really spurs you to do something.”
For Bruns, a nursing major from Oneida, Tenn., it’s partly about her own experience being on the receiving end of service and partly about human relationships. Growing up in financial difficulty, Bruns and her family relied on kindness.
“Something like a food drive where we would get food was always a part of my life and impacted meeting our needs,” she said. “It got me to where I am today, so I think it’s important to give back.”
It was this experience that impressed upon her the idea that we humans are all in this together. “I think the purpose of life is to build human relationships and learn from each other,” she said. “We’re all stuck on this rock hurtling through space together, and if we don’t figure our stuff out, we’ll have done a disservice to the people who come after us.”
The PWC program manager’s philosophy dovetails with the organization’s mission: to create compassion in everyday life. This mission includes service trips, educational programs and awareness events. The most popular service trip is to the Urban Goatwalker Coffeehouse in Louisville. Twice a month, the venue hosts the local homeless population for a restaurant-style meal and open-mic entertainment. Volunteers from PWC served them during a trip there last spring.
“It’s a night for them to sit down, be in a safe place and be entertained,” Davis said. “People who are homeless lose those opportunities.”
“It brings humanity back into their lives,” Bruns added.
The humanity aspect of service is a common theme for Bruns and Davis. It comes up again when they speak of visiting Lexington’s Hope Center, which provides food and shelter for the homeless along with addiction treatment for men and women. They speak of spending time with the residents in treatment, serving them food, playing cards with them and watching TV shows with them.
“It really puts a face on drug addiction,” Davis said. “Showing somebody you care, even if it’s just for an hour, talking with them about their family, how they react to that—I don’t know that I’ve ever felt that before.”
PWC offers community service opportunities several times per semester. They’ve put on large campus events like Mental Health Week and “Walk-a-Mile,” a refugee simulation. The group also brings passionate students back to campus to raise awareness about issues through a weekly student-led educational program called Café Social Justice, or Café SJ, as students call it. Topics are chosen from personal passions or from attendee suggestions. In the spring 2018 semester, students tackled subjects ranging from the effects of climate change on refugee populations to mental health to fair trade.
Ultimately, Davis says, the goal of the kind of work PWC and other programs at CELTS do is to eliminate the need for them. She noted that this past year marked the 25th annual food drive CELTS has done, a run she feels has gone on too long.
“We want to work ourselves out of a job,” said the senior who plans to be an immigration lawyer. “We shouldn’t have to do 25 years of food drives and awareness events. Volunteering with PWC opened my eyes to see that community service isn’t just, ‘Let me fill your bowl with soup,’ It’s ‘Let me advocate, let me help you in a way that you won’t need help in the future.’”