Honors Course Project Focuses on Two Families in Need

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Hanging drapes. Scrubbing, sweeping and dusting. Stocking cupboards with groceries. Not the typical tasks you would expect in a college honors course. Nevertheless, these were just a few of the deeds done last semester by 40 students in the Special Jesuit Liberal Arts Honors Program (SJLA) in an effort to help two local families in need.

Thirty-four juniors and six seniors were part of Ryan Maher S.J.’s class, “The Jesuit Magis,” an interdisciplinary SJLA course that explores the role the concept has played in Jesuit history, with particular focus on its implications for Jesuit education, among other things.

The students completed the tasks in apartment makeovers for the two families, in collaboration with the University’s Center for Service and Social Justice.

Sister Ann Walsh, I.H.M., director of Friends of the Poor, selected the families from a West Scranton housing development based on their particular need. The families were single mothers, one with 4 children ranging in age from 19 to six months, and the other with 3 children under the age of 5. After learning of the specific needs of the families from Sr. Ann, the students raised approximately $1,500 and solicited donations of clothes, furniture and cleaning products from friends and family. With the funds they raised, the group purchased a washer and dryer, bedding, curtains and groceries. Finally, on a Saturday in November, they spent hours at the two apartments to do the improvements.

“Our students don’t always know the conditions of how people live. This gives them a sense of how the world is,” said Patricia Vaccaro, director of the Center of Service and Social Justice. “At the University, we expect them to give back to their communities. It’s an important component of the ‘Magis’ class – going the extra mile, using your gifts and talents, to help other people. It is an eye-opening experience for them.”

“Every student involved put in an unbelievable amount of effort,” said Emily N. O’Connor, a junior psychology and philosophy major from Sherman, Conn., and member of the SJLA Honors Program. “In one of the apartments about half the students, including myself, spent the entire day cleaning the floors and walls, vacuuming, washing dishes and organizing each room. The family also needed beds, curtains for bare windows and other accessories, all of which we provided and helped install. The other apartment lacked furniture and home furnishings, so many students helped set up supplies and other accessories that we brought.” Students also washed all the clothes and linens in each house. 

Many of the students also took part in the fundraising efforts, which included a benefit concert with performances by students and faculty members, a T-shirt sale and a Quizzo night.

It is not just the families who benefited, said Fr. Maher. The students got just as much out of the project. “They find that in going out and being of service, something feels profoundly right. We grew enormously from this.”

Catherine Thurston, a junior biology and philosophy major, described the common ground she found with the families. “The first thing you saw when you walked in was pictures of their kids. You could tell how much they love their kids as much as my parents love me.”

“The biggest thing for me was going and meeting these people and being part of their lives,” she added.

Ms. O’Connor noted that as she cleaned one of the apartments, one of the children, a little girl, was glued to her side for the entire day. “Seeing how cheerful and kind each child was despite the less-than-ideal living situation they were in really opened my eyes to how optimistic children can be.”

The student volunteers got to know each family, and some returned to the apartments weeks later with food and gifts for Christmas, Ms. Vaccaro said.

“Each student was deeply involved in the experience,” Ms. O’Connor said. “I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to help with the program.”