Missouri Western serving with purpose

Martin Luther King, Jr. once stated, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’” This thought-provoking sentence served as the catalyst and inspiration for creating Missouri Western’s Center for Service.

Dr. Melody Smith ’87 was approached by the former administration and asked to create a new department that would keep the service aspect of Missouri Western alive within the community. “How do you get the town to come to Missouri Western, and most importantly, how do we get Missouri Western across the highway to the west side of town to be a part of the city so we are not recognized as the ‘university over there on the east side?’ How can people, culturally, understand that we’re committed to the city just as the city is committed to us?” Smith wondered. “The research is really embedded in town and gown. Making sure universities truly become a part of the town, which is a powerful model as well as a powerful draw.”

Smith believed that this new department needed to have the word “service” in the name and what originally started on a napkin, the Center for Service was born. “Whenever the thinking happens, it has to be put down. I drafted the outline and the concept on a napkin to begin development of programming for the CFS,” Smith recalled.

On the Wednesday prior to the Martin Luther King holiday in January 2019, The Center for Service officially began. This was also the time of the National Day of Service and was a time for new service beginnings for the University.

Service has always been a part of Missouri Western. The seal itself has service as one of its key values: to share the common purpose of serving students, one another and the people of the region. It is not a new concept to the university; however, students now have the opportunity to earn college credit while serving in the community.

The Center for Service was introduced to the students and the community in fall 2020, after beta testing in the spring and summer. There was a need for creative ways to serve the community as COVID-19 played a large factor in limiting volunteering opportunities as well as changing the on-campus environment to remote learning and availability of students to serve. 

Students could choose from several opportunities and activities that had been pre-selected by the Center. Many nonprofit and school organizations were shuttered to in-person volunteers and remote volunteering were new unique options that became available. American Red Cross’ disaster relief efforts, Youth Alliance’s CanStructure, South End Disaster Relief, Second Harvest City- Wide Food Drive and Mosaic Life Care Foundation’s emPowerU after-school program were just a few of the pre-selected opportunities students could choose from the business partners that the Center had already reached out to assist. In addition, students could choose their own service activity; from here in St. Joseph to their own community at home, as long as it follows in line with service to the community.

Kim Sigrist ’93, the Center’s current director, was approached by Missouri Western’s president, Dr. Kennedy, to lead the department. Kennedy was aware of Sigrist’s long-time involvement with the University and in the community. Sigrist and Kennedy, with backing from the Board of Governors, knew this program needed to continue to be a priority and wanted to see the Center succeed despite the challenge with COVID-19.

A shift was beginning to happen where not only was there a need in the community, but with the students on campus as well. Sigrist saw the need to connect with students and provide them with engagement that they were missing out on because of the unprecedented school year. She took this opportunity to really introduce the students to ways that they could serve.

The first chance to connect with students in person and through social media was Random Acts of Kindness week in February 2021. The goal was not just to earn credit but to serve. Opportunities consisted of bringing to light the current service efforts on campus such as the three Big Brother, Big Sister donation bins on campus, Habitat for Humanity aluminum can recycling drop-off location and donating to the Campus Cupboard. There was also a station to paint kindness rocks to give away or place on campus, a station to write a note of thanks to someone influential in one’s life and Pay it Forward Day where students were encouraged to surprise someone with an act of kindness.

Several pop-up opportunities in Blum Union had also been well received by students throughout the semester. “These are simple little tasks that we can engage with the students as they are walking through the Union to do small little acts of service or kindness in the community and start to build that relationship with the students to hopefully make inroads where they want to do more volunteerism and do bigger things as they go along,” Sigrist stated. Writing notes of appreciation for National Caregivers Day, assembling bags of candies for Nurse Appreciation Day, coloring bookmarks for Drop Everything and Read Day and United Way’s summer reading program are just a few of the projects that were opportunities to reach students who wouldn’t otherwise go and look for service opportunities on their own.

Erica Dunn ’21 was one of the first students to beta test the program by signing up and completing three service credits. “I really enjoy and value community service, and earning school credits seems like a win-win situation,” Dunn said. She focused her service with children and spent the majority of her service hours through Mosaic Lifecare Foundation’s emPowerU program. She served at their summer camps but was also able to help throughout the school year, namely hosting their emPowerU television segments. “I learned that I have a really intense passion for serving and working for others. When I started serving, I was less sure about what I wanted my career to look like. As I went on, I really began to understand that I wanted my career to look like serving and filling a need.” Dunn’s overall experience has been positive and leaves with a message to future Griffons about serving: “Missouri Western has given students a unique opportunity to not only serve their community, but to be able to recognize the needs around them and be empowered to do something about it.”

Where does the Center for Service go from here? Where is its place in the community and on campus? “As opportunities are starting to open up more, finding additional partnerships in the community, continuing to build relationships with our students and to educate them about what the Center for Service does and the opportunities that are out there in the community” is where Sigrist wants to direct her focus. “There will be programming this fall to draw attention and educate our students about social issues that affect, not only our community but other communities, and highlight some of those areas to educate [students] so they can find where their passion is to volunteer.” Homelessness, food insecurity, animal welfare and rescue are a few of the topics that will be key issues.

The Center for Service has also created a G.I.V.E. (Griffons in Volunteer Efforts) team. The goal is to partner internally with clubs, organizations, teams and staff to share resources and show Missouri Western as a whole the impact that is made within the community. As part of this combination of efforts, the Student Government Association has moved the Griffs Give Back program to the Center for Service suite to work together for service needs. There will always be a need to serve the community. There is also a need to educate new generations about what opportunities are out there in the community and to encourage students to serve after graduation. 

Smith emotionally reflects about the department a year after her retirement: “It gives me great joy to know that’s my alma mater, that’s where I worked, that’s where I was privileged to develop a program with collaboration and input from many, many smart people. [The Center for Service] will continue to grow, way beyond what I wrote down on that napkin in fall 2019 what the team did in terms of the operational workflow, and far beyond what the curriculum is to focus on Missouri Western’s value of service.”

– Contributed by Jennifer Stover

Kim Sigrist sits at a table behind several boxes of donated food.

Kim Sigrist ’93, director of the Center for Service, collects donations for the Campus Cupboard.