Volunteer service is an important collegiate experience for all students—one that is now being incorporated into Next Steps at Vanderbilt, the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center (VKC) 2-year postsecondary education program for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Next Steps has incorporated a regular rotation of volunteer opportunities into its core programming.
Lauren Mourier and Lisa Hale are social work trainees in the Vanderbilt UCEDD and LEND training programs. They led the charge to develop the Volunteer Service Project as an aspect of their master’s level training at the University of Tennessee School of Social Work.
The Next Steps students are learning invaluable life skills and gaining self-confidence while contributing their time and talents in meaningful ways and being a part of the wider Nashville community.
Mourier and Hale call their initiative “The Service Project.” Projects have included raising money for Habitat for Humanity through the annual Commodore Trot 5K, and, through Hands On Nashville, assembling survival kits for people who experience homelessness. The latter project left Next Steps students wanting more.
“The students recognized that loading the kits with toiletries and snacks was an important contribution,” said Mourier. “However, they repeatedly brought up that they wanted to actually interact with the community they were serving. It’s really wonderful to see the students engaged and wanting to move deeper into the acts of service.”
The organizers of Hands On Nashville quickly realized that Next Steps students are able and willing to contribute work and spirit at levels higher than they had imagined. So not only are the students benefitting from giving back to their community, they also are contributing to dispelling myths and misunderstandings about what people with disabilities are capable of doing.
“The ability to blow stereotypes out of the water is phenomenal,” said Hale.
Next Steps students participated in the Salvation Army’s Angel Tree Program and volunteered with a refugee and immigrant retraining program through Catholic Charities. They readied garden boxes with the Nashville Food Project, which aims to alleviate hunger in the city.
Like all people who enter into the landscape of community volunteer work, Next Steps students are pushing themselves to try new experiences, to navigate unfamiliar environments, and to consider life from other perspectives. At the end of each activity the students are proud and slightly more confident, while raising the expectations with those they encounter through their service.
Pictured top of page: Next Steps at Vanderbilt student volunteering through the Nashville Food Project