The Power of a Sustained Relationship
between Community Partners and Colleges and Universities
By James M. Ellison, director, Laughlin Memorial
Chapel, Wheeling, West Virginia
How does a community partner view its relationship
with the Bonner program or a campus that hosts such
a student program? The Laughlin Chapel is a community
center that serves three hundred children in grades
K–12 through after-school and evening activities,
including a nutrition program that provides twenty thousand
meals annually and summer activities centered on West
Virginia’s freedom school. The chapel is located
in a neighborhood where 38 percent of housing is abandoned
and over 90 percent of children qualify for free or
reduced-price meals at school.
The vitality of the chapel’s programs is a result
of long-standing partnerships with local institutions.
These include Wheeling Jesuit University, an institution
with which the chapel established the Mother Jones House,
an intentional community of juniors and seniors who
live and serve for one year in the neighborhood; West
Liberty State College, which sends over two hundred
education majors each year to serve in the chapel’s
after-school and evening programs, providing the context
for their learning and discernment of their calling
as teachers; and Waynesburg College, whose students
come twice weekly to serve and mentor, while also helping
youth publish a magazine that is inserted into fifty
thousand newspapers. In partnership with the Bonner
Foundation and Wheeling Jesuit University, the chapel
also hosts a growing number of college groups who are
part of alternative service-oriented break experiences
that require them to reflect upon community, social,
and regional issues.
Experiences with the chapel are an important part of
the educational process. College students are given
hands-on experience as they prepare to become teachers,
therapists, and journalists. In the process, students
become committed to the community and come to understand
the importance of place and context. Students develop
confidence in interacting with people from different
races, backgrounds, and economic situations. In experiencing
these new situations, they develop as leaders who understand
that to change a community one must empower people in
the community to see themselves as leaders.
Often, students who serve in this community become
advocates, encouraging their own institutions to move
a relationship lived at a distance to one that is more
personal and face-to-face. At the same time, through
their engagement with the community, students gain confidence
in their skills, ability to communicate, and leadership.
They learn how to look at themselves critically, especially
as they are challenged to examine long-held beliefs
and behaviors. In the process, students come to see
diversity as a means of enhancing their work rather
than as an impediment to it.
The students are not the only ones who are transformed.
The institutions that send them learn how to be better
neighbors. They learn from the students how to more
effectively use their resources to effect positive change
in a community.
All of these mutual benefits contribute to lasting,
sustainable relationships. Each partner must “know
itself” and, from this honest self-understanding,
advocate strongly for its own mission. In the case of
the chapel, our responsibility is to three hundred kids.
Anything we do within any partnership must always benefit
them. By contrast, the partner college has as its primary
focus the education of its students. In designing collaborative
partnerships centered upon community engagement, the
school must always ensure that any partnership is aligned
with its own mission. Only as each partner articulates
its own goals can community-based programs evolve into
a lasting relationship that will withstand failures
Developing a lasting partnership between a college
and a community agency is no different than cultivating
any other partnership. Success comes through a commitment
to team building, honest communication, and mutual accountability.
It comes when each partner realizes collaboration is
hard work. Whenever either partner sees the partnership
only as “an easy way to get more volunteers,”
“a way to give our students exposure,” or
any other quick fix to college or community issues,
the partnership will fail. However challenging, the
work of creating and sustaining relationships is worth
the effort because of the transformative possibilities
that it holds for students, host institutions and agencies,
and the community that brings them all together.