As students return to life at Gonzaga this fall, there are some noticeable differences due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The most heartbreaking difference for some may be losing the bright smiles of children when they get off the bus for Campus Kids, a program offered at GU through the Center for Community Engagement (CCE).
CCE at GU has a rich history coordinated with public institutions to bring fun, engaging and valuable volunteering opportunities for all students to participate in.
“Within the center there are many different kinds of programs, of course this year all of that is going to look very different,” said Abbey Martin, the youth programs director at CCE. “There is Campus Kitchens, which deals with food insecurities in the Spokane Area and Immersion Programs like Mission Possible, a spring break trip during which students can travel to different locales in the U.S. and partner with organizations working on specific justice-oriented issues.”
With the recent development of COVID-19, CCE has been confronted with the challenge of coordinating these programs amid new restrictions. Dealing with questions about how to handle programs that relied heavily on the physical elements of human interaction and melding them with pandemic guideline-friendly practices.
CCE is committed to change and advancement at GU, where students have access to programs that are enriching to the youth, but also to themselves as they learn and grow alongside the kids.
“The dream being that kids would have an opportunity to go to our youth programs, starting in third grade, Zag Study Buddies for instance, and then having a program to be plugged into, and having a Gonzaga connection all the way through high school," Martin said. “Many of those programs center around having a positive orientation towards the future including college or career readiness, so perhaps those youth themselves will be future [GU] students one day.”
Martin described several adjustments necessary to the initial outbreak as school closures began. Aspects of necessary distanced programming were first implemented with a letter writing campaign.
Student mentees of the Campus Kids programs wrote letters back and forth with student mentors, as important discussions of constructive closure and wrapping up the year became part of the programming. The results of this impressive letter campaign included over 300 letters written and sent across CCE programs, as the pandemic continued and students were pushed away from mentors.
“It’s taken creativity, innovation, time and listening to the needs of our community partners to find engagement approaches that are responsive and supportive in this current environment,” said Molly Ayers, director of CCE, in an email. “Adaptations have been made across the board. Our strong partnerships have allowed us to be at the table with many of our partners in trying to identify the best ways to support individuals, youth and families in our neighborhood and across Spokane.”
With passionate staff like Martin and Ayers working diligently to bring volunteering opportunities back to campus this fall, there has been a movement toward creative new solutions for programs available to students. Campus Kids will shift into a virtual programming platform possibly integrated into the school day. Martin outlined three important foundational aspects of new pandemic programming set to include academic support, social and emotional connections and fun and recreation for all students involved.
“We’ve come up with virtual programming protocols, using the best practices in the field of mentoring and also what other universities who do this kind of work are doing in response to this,” Martin said. “Knowing that we face all kinds of challenges as far as boundaries, privacy concerns and also how to make this new kind of programming engaging.”
Remaining dedicated to the community, CCE has ramped up meal delivery programs and food opportunities for local families, with over 20,000 meals delivered just this summer, Ayers said. This dedication will continue into the fall with students making a return to campus.
Martin said it's important to understand the monumental change that has occurred. She encourages students to be patient while waiting for opportunities to be made available to student.
“In a normal year, we would be full swing into recruitment at this time, with hundreds of [mentors] coming through our office,” Martin said. “This year we’re really relying heavily on our veteran mentors due to their training and experience. That’s not to say there aren’t opportunities to get involved through our office but accommodating new circumstances doesn’t allow the same number of new relationships we’ve been able to create in the past.”
Regardless of constraints, CCE is preparing for a productive year full of service to a community that needs it. With an Oct. 5 launch date, programming is set to begin in various modalities and across several locations on campus.
For information, students can visit the CCE offices in the John J. Hemmingson Center, rooms 206 and 010, or its webpage on www.gonzaga.edu/student-life/community-engagement-and-service. Campus Kids, Campus Kitchen and immersion opportunities may look different due to the pandemic, but CCE is as committed as ever to serving its community in every way possible.
“Our hope is that students recognize the power of relationships and connection during these times when we feel physically separated and that they recognize, now more than ever, we need to show up for each other and our community,” Ayers said. “This may look different this year, but it is still foundational to our Jesuit mission—a belief that we are here to serve the common good and to work alongside our communities to advocate for the creation of a more just world.”