Non-profits loving free college labor

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, March 9, 2010

NATCHEZ — The Natchez Children’s Home and the Sunshine Shelter are each paying a portion of their staff in chicken and brownies this week.

Both organizations are hosting college students as part of a national program, Spring Break Alternative.

The Natchez Children’s Home welcomed a group of 10 students from Boston University and the Sunshine Shelter has 10 students from James Madison University.

The student groups have become annual visitors to both local non-profit organizations.

Joe Mitchell, director of development at Natchez Children’s Home, said there is always a smile on his face when the van full of students pulls up in front of the children’s home.

“They always come with fresh energy and a willingness to serve,” he said. “I tell them all the work they do will not be glamorous, but it all helps to further our mission.”

This week the students at the children’s home will plant the garden started by last year’s Spring Break Alternative group, work to organize the thrift shop and be available for general maintenance and housekeeping.

“Our maintenance man doesn’t have enough time in his schedule to get out and plant this garden, but because of these students, our children will be able to see the garden planted, watch it grow and eat vegetables from the garden,” Mitchell said.

Boston University volunteer Kara Cremer decided to sign up for the Spring Break Alternative trip after hearing the buzz around campus about how fulfilling the opportunity is.

The sophomore from Chelsea, Mich., said so far, after just one day of work, the trip didn’t disappoint.

“I heard nothing but good things about the program,” she said. “It is a good feeling to know you are helping out, making a difference, during spring break.”

Matilda Stephens, executive director of Sunshine Shelter, said she anticipates the arrival of her group of students all year.

“We save projects for this week because we know we are going to have a willing group of workers at our disposal,” she said. “We have a small staff, and everyone here wears many different hats. When you can get 10 more people in here wearing hats, a real difference can be made.”

The James Madison students worked Monday at Sunshine Shelter and will be at the Boys and Girls Club today, the Guardian Shelter on Thursday and at Kyle’s House on Friday.

“We are fortunate to get a group every year, but some of the smaller non-profits don’t have the opportunity to have this type of volunteers,” Stephens said. “I thought it was kind of selfish for us to have them all to ourselves the entire week when we have other local agencies that can benefit from their service.”

While a good amount of time for both groups will be spent doing labor and housekeeping projects, the student volunteers have also been able to interact with the children helped by the two organizations.

Stephens said the children at Sunshine Shelter, particularly the teenagers, are impacted greatly by the presence of the college group.

“Having a group of young people that are relatively close to their age come in and just hang out with them is an amazing thing for these kids,” she said. “The one-on-one or one-on-two attention from someone who has a genuine interest can really break through some tough barriers.”

Mitchell said the student volunteers working in the day treatment preschool classrooms at the children’s home give the teachers an extra set of hands.

“While they are reading with one child or a group of children, the teacher is able to work with another child who may need a little more attention,” Mitchell said. “It gives our students a chance to experience different people and the teacher the chance to focus on the children that may need a little more time.

“I really admire these groups of young people who could be sitting on a beach somewhere but decided to go somewhere and help out.”