By Kelly Dickey The Herald Bulletin
The Herald Bulletin
---- — ANDERSON -- The Anderson University students walk right into the kitchen after making the trip from campus. While tossing their coats over chairs by the door, they’re welcomed by hellos and questions about how they’ve been.
Between the greetings, the rising sound of various conversations on top of each other and the smell of cooking food floating in the air, it feels just like visiting home for the holidays.
But it’s not Christmas, and the students aren’t visiting family at home – not technically.
A group of about 20 AU students walk from campus to the Christian Center every Friday to volunteer. From about 4:15 to 7 p.m., they cook, dine, do dishes, chat and play games with the men at the shelter.
It’s not a conventional family or friendship, but the volunteers and residents say those relationship aspects play into their time together.
“We have relationships with them and we enjoy spending time with them,” AU freshman Ellie Stockert said. “It’s not like I’m sacrificing anything.”
The group is part of a campus ministry, and student coordinator Kacie McGuire said the number of volunteers has rapidly grown this school year.
Only a handful of students volunteered in the 2012-13 school year, compared to the 20 regulars this year. McGuire said she thinks the ministry has picked up momentum in part because of word of mouth.
Sophomore Stephen Morris said he heard an older friend say that volunteering at the Christian Center is what made her love AU. He didn’t know what she meant until he started volunteering there.
He said the biggest takeaway is he gets to know God better.
McGuire said that’s the point of the ministry.
“Jesus has called us to come and to love and serve people,” she said. “Those shrugged under the rug are the ones who need us the most. That’s a huge reason I’ve stuck with this.”
But she also said she doesn’t think the guys need the students, they just enjoy having them around.
Shelter resident Jeff Perry said before he came to the Christian Center, he had always been alone. But the sense of community within the shelter and the relationships with the AU students has changed that.
“Since I’ve been here it’s been a blast to talk to everybody,” he said. “Overall we kind of help each other up instead of put each other down. We love the AU kids. When they’re not here, we’re lost.”
When AU classes are out for long breaks, the men often start to get antsy for the students to return.
Resident Troy Nightborne said that wasn’t the case when AU was on spring break. About 12 students still showed up, which helped show their commitment.
“They don’t see us as homeless,” he said. “We’re residentially challenged.”
Cordell Ford, who runs the kitchen at the Christian Center, said the students’ visits give the men in the shelter an opportunity to have purely positive interactions with other people.
Some residents are usually quiet and withdrawn, Ford said, but they become much more open when they hang out with the students.
“These kids come on their own free will, and it gives the guys a chance to interact with people they normally wouldn’t interact with,” he said.
Freshman volunteer Mia Klaes said when she first signed up for the ministry, she thought it was going to be just like serving at a soup kitchen. She didn’t expect to gain such meaningful friendships.
Klaes said the experience has taught her more about life, who God is and focusing on the present.
“I learn about living in the now,” she said. “In college you think a lot about the future, but the now is important, too.”
McGuire said the residents may be in a shelter, but it’s just a transitional period for them. It’s all the more reason why they need love, support and respect.
The students and residents are experiencing life together, she said.
That’s part of the reason Morris said they connect with the residents so well.
“It’s interesting because they’re in a transition stage of their lives and so are we,” he said. “We know we won’t be in contact forever, but we’re happy to be while we are.”
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