Volunteer Catawba: For 20 Years, Students Have Learned Life of Service

"Service is part of the identity of Catawba College. This is a crucial part of the Catawba person." — Johnathon Boles, Director of Volunteer Catawba The Catawba person ... Just who is that person? Volunteer Catawba students and staff at a Habitat for Humanity construction site on Martin Luther King...

"Service is part of the identity of Catawba College. This is a crucial part of the Catawba person."
— Johnathon Boles, Director of Volunteer Catawba

The Catawba person ...

Just who is that person?

Faculty, staff and the board of trustees at this four-year college, nestled in the rolling hills of the Piedmont of North Carolina, talk in terms of "the Catawba person" as they think about themselves, their current students, and the students for years to come.

That person is given to service ... to giving back to their community ... to not only finding their place in the world but also helping the world become a better place.

"Volunteer Catawba" fits that message like hand to glove.

For more than 20 years, Catawba students have participated in the program of giving back to the community in record numbers. Some three-fourths of the day students currently participate, working in partnership with nearby Livingstone College to build a Habitat House; stitching fleece blankets for people living in shelters this winter; bringing holiday gifts to needy children; visiting nursing homes; holding fundraisers for the local pregnancy support center; building picnic tables and Adirondack chairs for a new dog park behind the city civic center.

The projects vary from the major – as in learning enough construction to actually put a house together "from the ground up" – to projects that Boles calls "one-and-offs." An example is the "Food For Thought" program at Rowan Helping Ministries, where students and other volunteers package contributed food for weekend meals for "food insecure" students.

Catawba Volleyball team members packed medical kits for the Sole Hope Medical Team. Sole Hope of Salisbury is an organization committed to a medical remedy for the people of Uganda, who suffer from jiggers, caused by a sand flea that burrows into a person’s feet. 

The impact on the Salisbury-Rowan community, where Catawba is located, is huge. Conservatively, more than 9,000 students, from student athletes participating in team service to individuals, have participated in volunteer projects while they attended Catawba. Many of them volunteer for multiple projects and services and do volunteer work each year of their time at Catawba. It can be as big as a Walk for Life event involving hundreds to a group from the science department doing a demonstration at the local Power Cross Ministries organization, which serves at-risk students in an after-school program.

Catawba student Hannah Parrish said that Volunteer Catawba has been one of the best choices that she has made in her college career. "I'm beyond excited to see what the future holds for us as part of not Only Volunteer Catawba but as a community as well," she said.

Her work on the Habitat construction project taught her "not only how good it feels to give back but opens my eyes to see the world around me and helps me better understand that people are struggling, and I myself can help turn that person's day around," she said. "Putting up those four walls of a house we have been working on and then stepping back made me have a sense of not only pride in myself for doing it, but I felt so good knowing that I'm giving a home to someone who truly deserves it."

Freshman Jack Terrell refers to Volunteer Catawba as "a family, not an organization.

"I plan on working with them even after I graduate," he said. "This kind of work allows students who care about the community and others to come out without being obligated to do so and make a difference."

Volunteer Catawba began in 1996 with a grant from the United Church of Christ, with which Catawba is affiliated. Peggy Wilson was the first director, working tirelessly to lay the foundation for the volunteerism spirit at Catawba.

Volunteer Catawba students packed hurricane relief buckets, in conjunction with the United Church of Christ's 500 Hurricane Bucket Challenge.   

Boles, himself a graduate of Catawba and a participant in the program as an undergrad, is sure that those graduates are imprinted with the core value of service and that wherever they live and work, they are giving back.

It's a fulfilling thought, this idea of changing the world for the better, one student at a time. And one Boles fully endorses.

"The idea is for the four years we have with these students, to hit it hard ... to transform the individual," Boles says. "We know that everyone can give of their time. Time can be the most valuable gift. By the end of their Catawba education, they realize their civic duty as a citizen of the U.S. and the world. They are more giving."

Four times in the past 10 years, Volunteer Catawba has won the prestigious President's Honor Roll Award for Volunteer Service, one of only 300 institutions of higher learning to receive the award from among 7,000. Catawba received the awards for Community Service, with Distinction, given to organizations that display strong levels of institutional commitment, provide a compelling case for partnership that produces measurable impact in a community and has a Federal Work Student community service percentage of 12 percent, or above. The national award program is an initiative of the Corporation for National and Community Service and is administered by Points of Light.


College supporters of the program don't tout the award, perhaps because of the unwritten code: Service is not for glory. It is for the good.

Another benefit to the students, however, is national statistics that speak to the relationship of volunteering and paid work. For young people with little history of paid employment, volunteering can signal that a person would be a reliable and motivated employee, according to "Does It Pay to Volunteer? The Relationship Between Volunteer Work and Paid Work," by Helen Jorgensen, in a publication of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, Washington, DC. The research calls volunteering "a pathway to employment." It states that the employment rate of non-working persons who volunteered between 20 and 49 hours per year was up to 57 percent higher than the rate of non-volunteers.

Volunteer Catawba students pack items for the "food insecure" of Rowan County in collaboration with Food for Thought program of Rowan Helping Ministries. 

This, too, fits into the Catawba culture. The college graduates students who either leave with jobs or acceptance into graduate schools. In fact, 96 percent of the grads fall into this category. The student-to-faculty ratio is 13:1. Dr. Ken Clapp, chaplain and senior vice-president of Catawba, says that the college's uniqueness is teaching students to think about values and how their values can translate into what they do with their lives.

"Catawba educates the whole student," says Boles. "We teach vocation and value. Volunteer Catawba helps to bring together talents and ability with societal needs and creates a space where they can intersect. Student volunteers can find vocations that they truly desire."


For a "real life" experience, Volunteer Catawba was asked by a community agency for help in research and writing grants. "That can lead to a career," Boles says. "It can offer a tangible interaction with executives of corporations serving on community boards."

Aside from the statistics, the success rate of grads, and the Catawba culture, Boles looks broader at the program he loves. "This has an impact on the community. Catawba leads by example," Boles says. "Our greatest gift to the community is to empower others to be selfless."

For more information, visit catawba.edu/volunteer.

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