One Saturday morning a month during the academic year, volunteers from Viterbo University serve at up to eight nonprofit community organizations in the greater La Crosse community.
While leaders at places such as WAFER, La Crosse Children’s Museum, Salvation Army, and Habitat for Humanity appreciate the help, many times it’s the volunteers themselves who gain the most from the experience.
“Our hope is that students grow in their understanding of the power of mutual collaboration, appreciation of the gifts, talents, and abilities of those we serve alongside, and the belief that they are able to make a difference in the world around them,” said Kirsten Gabriel, director of Student Life at Viterbo University.
Viterbo Service Saturdays begin with participating students, faculty, employees, alumni, and family members meeting on campus for an inspiring message or blessing. A morning of service follows, and the day concludes with a lunch at Viterbo.
“The post-service lunch is a key component of Service Saturdays because it gives students time to reflect and share their experiences, questions, and perceptions with others,” Gabriel said. “Reflection plays a significant role in transforming service into service-learning.”
The Viterbo Service Saturday program began in February 2016 with 35 participants serving at three sites. A year and a half later, the average number of participants has almost doubled. Larger Service Saturday events, such as the one held to celebrate the inauguration of President Glena Temple in April of 2017, resulted in 326 volunteers serving at more than 20 locations. The program was originally made possible by a grant from the Viterbo Annual Trustees’ Opportunity fund, which covered the cost of lunch, transportation, and miscellaneous supplies.
In addition to fitting perfectly with Viterbo’s mission and Franciscan values, Service Saturdays include several elements of what is known as a “high-impact practice” in higher education. The program is designed to promote meaningful interactions between faculty and students, learning outside of the classroom, and collaboration with diverse others. Including alumni participants provides learning and networking opportunities.
“As one student wisely pointed out, it’s one thing for your professor to work with you to prepare for an exam, but it’s something different for them to spend a Saturday morning serving alongside and getting to know you,” said Gabriel. “Programs like this really help to increase retention of students.”
Additional goals of the Service Saturdays program are to develop partnerships with community agencies and local neighborhoods and to provide meaningful, reflective service opportunities for students that promote integration and understanding of our institutional mission and core values.
“As a student at Viterbo, I found Service Saturdays to be an enriching addition to my Viterbo education,” said graduate R.L. Olson. “The experiences I have had through Service Saturdays have allowed me to better connect with the Franciscan values of the university. Each event gave us students wonderful opportunities to get out into the community together and serve various non-profit organizations. I will certainly return to some of these organizations to volunteer again in the future.”