Learn and Serve Niagara, Niagara University’s flagship service-learning program, celebrated its 20th anniversary on Tuesday, Oct. 7, in the Castellani Art Museum
The initial grant was for three years, and a subsequent grant extended Learn and Serve Niagara for an additional three years. Because of the impact and success of the program, the university made Learn and Serve Niagara a permanent fixture.
Presently, during the academic year, NU students, through Learn and Serve Niagara, dedicate 1,000 hours of service to the community every week.
For its dedication to service learning, Niagara University has been included on the President’s Honor Roll for Community Service every year since its inception. The institution was also recognized with the Carnegie Foundation’s Classification for Community Engagement, and national publications like U.S. News and World Report annually praise the efforts that its students and employees make on behalf of those in need.
As a Catholic and Vincentian university, Niagara draws inspiration from St. Vincent de Paul, who organized his contemporaries to respond compassionately to people’s basic needs. Continuing this tradition, Niagara has a long history of serving the local, regional and global communities.
“Many universities prepare students for professional occupations; Niagara University’s service-learning programs prepare them to be professionals with character,” remarked the Rev. James J. Maher, C.M., president. “Service-learning is, in fact, a distinguishing characteristic of Niagara University. Our academic and athletics programs are outstanding. Our faculty members are incredible researchers and teachers. But service-learning is what we were founded upon.”
Laurie S. Worrall, Ed.D., executive director of New York Campus Compact, was the event’s keynote speaker. The NYCC is a membership association of college and university presidents committed to promoting “active citizenship as an aim of higher education.” Worrall has almost 20 years of experience working with university-community partnerships, including the development of local, national and international community-based learning programs at DePaul University, and Defiance College in Ohio.
In addition, six university employees, alumni and partners who have demonstrated a commitment to lifelong engagement in the pursuit of social justice were recognized.
Marilynn P. Fleckenstein, Ph.D., was the founding director of Learn and Serve Niagara. The program began with 200 students integrating service into their scholastic curriculum. It has since grown to include 81 percent of the student body. Dr. Fleckenstein has presented more than 60 workshops on service learning throughout the U.S., as well as in the Philippines and Ireland. She holds a bachelor’s degree in biology from D’Youville College, and master’s and doctoral degrees in philosophy from The Catholic University of America. Dr. Fleckenstein has organized more than 15 international business conferences focused on ethics in the corporate world. An active volunteer, Dr. Fleckenstein has been instrumental in the development of the Western New York Service Learning Coalition, and helped establish the Vincentian Scholars Program at NU. She also spends a great deal of time assisting the efforts of the Diocesan Service Corps, the Better Business Bureau, and the Niagara County Habitat for Humanity.
Osman Kabia, ’99, was born in Lunsar, a war-torn town in the northern province of Sierra Leone. Kabia eventually immigrated to the United States to reunite with his mother in 1989. After graduating from NU, Kabia worked in Atlanta as a member of AmeriCorps VISTA, serving the needs of residents living in impoverished neighborhoods. Two years later, and now a naturalized citizen, Kabia was accepted into the Peace Corps. In 2012, he was hired by the United States Agency for International Development as a Foreign Service limited officer, and deployed to Afghanistan to assist during the drawdown. When Kabia returned to the U.S., he founded S.H.A.R.E., which stands for Sustainable and Holistic Advances for Rural Education. The program endeavors to strengthen and advance shared responsibilities, shared values, shared opportunities, and shared leadership among Sierra Leone’s rural inhabitants.
Evelyn Hope Novak has spent the last 21 years as a cook and volunteer for Meals on Wheels of Niagara Falls. After “retiring” as a cook at Prince of Peace, Novak was asked to serve as the cook for Meals on Wheels. Over the years, Novak has gone far and beyond her duties, cooking the food for various events and fundraisers to benefit her fellow volunteers and others who were experiencing difficult life events. Novak also remains very active in her church and has been a regular volunteer over the years at Heart, Love and Soul. Despite an ailing hip and a bout with cancer, Novak shows no signs of slowing down and is looking forward to her 22nd year of serving those who are most in need.
The late Carol L. Murphy, born in Pittsburgh and trained in biology at the University at Buffalo, was both the proprietor and heart and soul of the family-owned and operated Murphy Orchards in Burt, N.Y. Prior to her passing in May, Murphy personally welcomed thousands of individuals to her farm, and to the McClew Interpretive Center, part of the New York State Underground Railroad Heritage Trail. Murphy volunteered much of her time with the Underground Railroad Commission, but she also found time to assist with the Western New York Service Learning Coalition’s Faculty Fellows training, speaking with participants from the perspective of a community partner.
The Niagara Falls City School District has played a vital role in the success of the Learn and Serve Niagara program over the last 18 years. Thousands of NU students have volunteered in Niagara Falls schools and extended program sites since the start of the partnership. During this time, hundreds of thousands of hours of service have been accumulated by Niagara students. In 1997, College of Education students started performing field placements in the Niagara Falls schools during their freshman year. The students were given several opportunities to gain various experiences in a variety of diverse K-12 classrooms in all of Niagara Falls’ schools. As the need for pre-service teachers grew in Niagara Falls classrooms, the district supported the program financially by providing transportation for NU students to and from schools with a driver and van five days a week for 15 years.
Since 1996, the Francis Center, now located in the Divine Mercy Parish Center on 24th St. in downtown Niagara Falls, has provided safe and welcoming after-school and summer enrichment programs for children of all faiths and backgrounds. Organized by the Sisters of St. Francis of Penance and Christian Charity, its establishment was the result of a persistently unmet need for young students to receive help with reading and homework. Most of these children cannot afford tutoring, or lessons and experiences in fine arts. Thus, all of the programs at the Francis Center are free to attend. Niagara University students volunteer regularly at the Francis Center.