University Relations and Communications

MSU Billings freshmen connect community service to college education

February 28, 2011



Kathy Kotecki, Office of Community Involvement, 896-5815
Dan Carter, University Relations, 657-2269



MSU BILLINGS NEWS SERVICES — Mikaela Herman has an affinity for families, which was evident on two levels Friday during a service learning presentation at Montana State University Billings.


In front of her was a presentation on Forever Families, an organization that supports foster families and children in Billings. And just below her at ankle level was her 1-year-old son, Daniel.


As Daniel, putting his young legs to the test, trotted toward mom, the college student explained how she mixed passion and learning for a service project.


“I love working with kids,” said the college freshman from Glasgow, a smile stretching across her face as she juggled display information and hugs for her son.


She and classmates Marka Green and Bingzhu Sun eagerly talked about their service-learning project that married their college education with community service. The project was part of a seven-week class designed get students to find local solutions to local needs.


“This showed us as college students that we can be involved in the community,” Herman said. “It really opened our eyes to all kinds of places that need help.”


Which is precisely the point, says Kathy Kotecki, director of the Office of Community Involvement at MSU Billings who coordinated the service learning course this semester.


“I think the best thing for students is that their awareness level was heightened about a lot of issues in the community,” Kotecki said. “To really have their heads wrapped around the needs of the people here is important.”


Service learning is nothing new at college campuses around the country. Many universities use courses that tie their education to work in the community and provide a new perspective for students. At MSU Billings, that perspective involves connections with community partners with the goal of finding new solutions for local challenges.


Six groups of students met with six community partners over the first seven weeks of the spring semester as part of the elective course. Those sessions involved a lot of information sharing, hands-on learning and volunteering time. Each student was required to put in at least six hours of volunteer time for their partner organization.


Some students dealt with homelessness while others learned about and developed solutions for after-school care, the local animal shelter, programs for disabled adults and foster care.


“They were supposed to develop solutions that were solutions-oriented,” Kotecki said. “It’s all about being a change agent as a student.”

Cash strapped and heavily reliant on volunteers, many community entities constantly look for new ways to raise both awareness and money.


For Herman and partners Green and Sun, the challenge was to find a way for Forever Families to bring back a popular summer camp for foster children. The Kids Konnection camp was put on hold recently because of financial issues, Green said, and their group went to work.


Forever Families is a grassroots, non-profit organization formed by foster/adoptive parents, social workers and community leaders to help foster families and children. There is no paid staff and the group works to promote self-confidence and skills-building among foster kids. Special events and projects like the Kids Konnection camp work toward those goals.


“One of the things that stuck out to us was how much the kids and caregivers need that camp,” Green said.

The students found out that the majority of children who term out of foster care at age 18 often don’t move into jobs or higher education without the support and skills they can gain at special events and camps.


“We found out that 85 percent of kids who age out of foster care end up doing nothing,” Herman said.


To help solve the Forever Families need, the three students developed a plan for a special fund-raising carnival at MSU Billings on March 12.  Their solution and presentation also earned each student on the team a $1,000 scholarship for the fall 2011 semester.

Herman said the ability to use her MSU Billings experience to help the community is invaluable.


“I really like doing hands-on learning and helping kids,” the business management major said. “Being able to do a class on it, I learned so much.”


Other students found new ways to raise awareness levels for abandoned pets, the homeless in Billings, students who need attention in after-school programs and developmentally disabled adults looking for work.


Karlee Young, an elementary education major from Havre, and Camille Seed, a freshman from Helena who is majoring in outdoor adventure leadership, developed a new Facebook page for the Discover Zone after-school care program. The endeavor is designed to recruit new volunteers among college-aged students and young adults.


Ryan Shore, a mass communications major from Billings, Tessa Zimmerer, a Colorado freshman double-majoring in general business and public relations and Cali Freier, a Havre elementary education major, worked on a plan to raise awareness of the needs of developmentally adults at COR Enterprises. They also pushed an effort on campus to encourage students to eliminate the word “retarded” from their vocabulary.


The “End the ‘R’ Word” pledge got more than 100 signatures on a large poster over the course of a noon-hour one day last week and was a valuable learning experience, the students said. They also developed a 1980s-style physical work-out routine for the clients at COR Enterprises.


“The fun we had was also the best education we got,” Shore said. “It was great to see the participation (from the adults at COR) and to get to know them.”


As a university in a large city that serves many needs, Kotecki said awareness of the needs of the vast array of community and social service groups is important for students.


“For some, it’s hard to wrap their heads around some of the needs,” she said. “Like when they see that homeless man sitting in the downtown area, well it’s not because he’s lazy. There can be a lot of reasons.”


Developing possible solutions and opening dialogues about the needs is a first step for students who engage in service-learning projects, she said. If they take it beyond that first step, it’s a bonus to them and the community.


“They’ve found out that without volunteers, a lot of these needs in the community wouldn’t be addressed. They’ve found out that it’s vital that you have to have a passion.”


For more about service learning projects at MSU Billings, contact the Office of Community Involvement at 896-5815.


FIRST PHOTO ABOVE: Mikaela Herman and her 1-year-old son, Daniel, put the final touches on a service learning presentation at MSU Billings on Friday, Feb. 25. A freshman from Glasgow, Herman and two other students on her team worked to develop a local solution to funding challenges at Forever Families, a local group that assists foster children and caregivers. The presentation was part of a service-learning class that helps students connect their college education to the needs of the community.


SECOND PHOTO ABOVE:  Below, Ryan Shore talks about his work with COR Enterprises, an organization that helps developmentally disabled adults find work.


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