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Four Years at the Mount

This month, as our writers head home for winter break to celebrate the holidays, we asked them to reflect on a holiday charity that is close to their hearts. We hope to ignite your desire to help your community with our unique community service experiences.

Worthy Charities

December 2015

Children Deserve a Chance Foundation

Elizabeth Veronis
MSN Class of 2019

I have always been a sucker for a good come-from-behind, David beats Goliath, rags-to-riches story. I root for the underdog. Come March Madness, I celebrate every Cinderella team that upsets a top seed. Perhaps thatís why one of my favorite holiday shows is A Charlie Brown Christmas. Like Charlie Brown, I see the potential in that sad sapling that no one else wants. My heart positively swells as that straggly tree is loved back to life by a Peanuts Gang that is finally reminded of the true meaning of Christmas, when Linus recites the annunciation to the shepherds from the Gospel of Luke.

It is easy to become cynical about the over-commercialization and secularization of Christmas. The Halloween candy barely clears the shelves before shoppers are prodded into a getting a jump on Black Friday. Fortunately, my hometown of Lancaster, PA, takes a collective breath in advance of the holidays for a day of charitable giving. It is called the Extraordinary Give and it is a 24-hour event that benefits some 300 foundations, non-profits, and service organizations in my community. Last year, $4.5 million was pledged in a single day. One of the beneficiaries is the Children Deserve a Chance Foundation. It happens to be my favorite!

The CDCF was established in 2004 to provide mentoring and college preparation to at-risk kids. It was founded by Jordan Steffy, who was once assisted by a mentor who intervened precisely when it mattered most. As he recounts his story, Steffy was making bad choices in middle school; hanging with the wrong crowd, unfocused in school, and not thinking much about his own future. He was also a stellar athlete, a highly recruited quarterback who wound up playing for the University of Maryland. Recently, he earned an MBA from Columbia University. His turnabout Ė from flailing teenager to Ivy Leaguer, inspired him to give back to similarly situated kids.

The success of this foundation is truly inspiring. Almost all of the program participants will be the first in their families to graduate from college. Most never dreamed this was possible, prior to getting involved with the foundation. They simply didnít see the path forward, for there were so many stumbling blocks ahead of them.

Getting into the foundationís college prep program, known as Atollo, is not a walk in the park either. The students have to endure six weeks of training on the pillars of the program -- strong mind, competition, resiliency, accountability, sacrifice, and finishing strong. The training begins at 5:30 a.m. There are no acceptable excuses for being late. They come because they embrace the programís mantra: "I AM MORE!" They certainly are, on so many levels. But, first and foremost, they are more than the stereotypes of inner-city youth that many people hold.

By the time these kids graduate from Atollo, they will have had access to the very tools usually reserved for the wealthiest among us: top-notch SAT preparation, individual tutoring, assistance on the college application process, and mentoring from some of the areaís brightest and most successful entrepreneurs and businesspeople. They will also have walked the campuses of more than a dozen universities during summer college tours. As they walk across the quads of some of our nationís best schools, these Atollo Scholars can see a changing future. They begin to believe.

Because my father serves on the board of directors for this foundation, I have had the privilege to meet many of the participants, some of whom attended my own high school. As I first learned their stories, I was struck by how different our backgrounds were. But as time passed, I was more struck by how similar our hopes are. We all want meaningful careers. We all wish to contribute to our communities. We all hope to make our families proud. At our core, we all believe that, given the right opportunities and the right resources, we can achieve most anything we desire. Unfortunately, far too many low-income children are never afforded the same opportunities as their more affluent peers

I have been thinking a great deal about the growing gap between the haves and the have-nots. In fact, I am researching it for a class I am taking at the Mount. The social and economic ramifications of a divided society should alarm us all. The poor have lower life expectancies, less access to health care, and fewer opportunities to shape the political process. More than at any time in recent history, they have less opportunity to move out of the class into which they were born. That seems to go against the most American of ideals: upward mobility and equal opportunity. Even President Obama has identified this as "the defining challenge of our time."

Like the Atollo Scholars, we need to believe that we can be more: more compassionate and more committed to addressing the problems that leave too many with too little to succeed. The Christmas season provides an ideal occasion to give a helping hand to those who need one. Consider donating to the Children Deserve a Chance Foundation in Lancaster, PA. Or find the children who deserve a chance in your own community. Like Charlie Brown, see the potential in someone who just needs a little more love to thrive. Better yet, see the potential in yourself to be the change you want to see in your community.

Read other articles by Elizabeth Veronis


Iíll be home for ChristmasÖ

Sarah Muir
MSM Class of 2018

It was warm and comfortable inside, a sharp contrast to the icy rain and bone-chilling winds that buffeted the small car. The woman inside hummed softly to the song on the radio, careful not to wake her passenger. She looked in her rearview mirror and smiled at the small five-year old boy, asleep in the back. He was slumped in his car-seat, a green tissue paper crown from a Christmas cracker falling over his eyes, all tuckered out from a day of excitement.

It was, overall, an almost-perfect Christmas Eve. Everyone was smiling and laughing, eating copious amounts of food from the table that was practically groaning under the weight of turkey and ham, stuffing and mashed potatoes, green beans and fresh bread. The house seemed to radiate warmth and light and smelled like pine, apples, and turkey. The tree was huge and over-laden with sparkling lights and ornaments. Everyone was there, enjoying each otherís company and basking in the warm glow that the season seems to exude. Well, almost everyone. There was a place set at the table that lay empty, waiting for an occupant that would not be coming.

She frowned slightly at the memory, he was far away from home, doing God knows what, and though she knew it was silly, all she could think about was that he would have Christmas without a tree, or stockings and be far away from family. She knew it was going to be difficult tomorrow. Being woken by an eager five-year old who wants, more than anything, to know where his daddy is and wondering why he is not there on Christmas. She sighed, as she pulled into the driveway, not realizing it had started snowing. She sat it the car for a few moments, thinking about the look on her sonís face when he finds out his father could not come home for Christmas. She thought of what she would have to say: Well, daddy is far away, you see? He is protecting a lot of people. He loves you so much, darling, and he will come home, just not today.

She blinked away the moisture gathering in her eyes and stepped out of the car. She unbuckled her son, who was still out like a light. Adjusting the tissue paper crown so it would not fall, she picked him up, carried him inside the house, and got him ready for bed. He woke up just enough to ask for a story and she obliged him. He fell asleep sometime after the narratorís eyes, full of wonder, saw the eight tiny reindeer.

She finished the story and silently left his room. She started to head towards her room when the lights on the Christmas tree distracted her, and she went to turn them off before going to bed. Then what before her wondering eyes should appear, but a deep green duffle bag under the lowest boughs of the tree. A soft cough came from behind her and she turned to face the beatific smile and warm eyes that she missed so much. "I told you Iíd be home for ChristmasÖ"

Merry Christmas! Itís the time of year for family and friends to gather round the yule log and relish in each otherís company. It is also the season for people to start looking outside of themselves to help other and to bring a bit more light into the world. Our troops, both at home and overseas, protect our country every day, sometimes at the cost of their own lives.

There are many foundations that help our troops and their families. Wounded Warriors, for instance, is an organization, founded in 2003, that helps to provide aid and encouragement to certain members of the service who have experienced physical or mental injuries, illness, or wounds. They are always looking for volunteers to help and donations.

The Red Cross is a well-known organization that works closely with Veterans Administration (VA) and military hospitals nationwide. They provide relief to service women and men across the country and those overseas.

Despite the somewhat Hallmark ending to my story, the truth is, not everyone can come home for the holidays. Because of this, many foundations have taken it upon themselves to donate their time to writing Christmas cards or assembling care-packages that provide a bit of home to soldiers that are so far away from theirs. Soldierís Angels is one such organization. They send Christmas cards to soldiers overseas and aid to military families through their "Adopt-a-family" program, which allows people to sponsor a family to help them afford Christmas celebrations from a holiday dinner to presents for the children. Soldierís Angels also bring assistance to homeless veterans in the community through their "No-Sew Blanket Drive" that provides warm blankets to veterans during these cold winter days.

I understand that this season is filled with worries. You have gifts to buy, trees to find, homes to decorate, in-laws to handle, and so many other things that need to be checked off your seemingly endless holiday to-do list. Nevertheless, I ask you to take the time to help those who have given so much for our safety and our country and those that will not be coming home for Christmas. I am not asking you to ignore your "to-do" list and volunteer all your time or donate hundreds of dollars. I am asking that you simply do what you can to help those who proudly serve (or have served) our country. Little is left to be say, except, maybe, Merry Christmas!

Read other articles by Sarah Muir


Christmas Charities

Leeanne Leary
Class of 2017

Between the Salvation Army volunteers dressed as Santa Claus outside of stores, to the option to add a dollar to your total for charity inside the store, to the massive increase in soup kitchen volunteers and toy drives, the holiday season seems to bring out an unreal amount of opportunities to both volunteer and donate. So much so that it can actually become overwhelming at times.

It is truly beautiful, but I think the reason it can seem like so much is because of the stark contrast between the time of mid-November to late-December and the other 10 and a half months of the year. It is natural, and we can see it all around us as spirits rise around the holidays. Families are reunited, soldiers come home, employees get holiday leave and bonuses, and childrenís moods generally improve as they await Christmas and a break from school. Naturally, people feel more inclined to give and a heavier weight of obligation during these times. Itís impossible to forget those who may not experience the same holiday joy, and it is clear how important the holidays are to us as a nation by the way we rally in hopes of sharing our holiday joy and privileges with everybody.

I work at a store called Justice. If you donít know, itís a clothing store aimed at pre-teen girls; the new Limited Too. Every year at Christmastime we, along with hundreds of other stores, offer an option at the end of each transaction for the customer to add a dollar, five, or ten, that will go directly to St. Judeís Childrenís hospital. Some decline, but many participate and it is breathtaking to see the weekly and monthly totals of how much can be raised through this very simple question I ask each customer at the end of each transaction. There is no volunteering in this method, thereís no extra work besides an extra three clicks on the screen; it is just the customers purely giving.

What is so fascinating to me about these holiday charities and opportunities is how much more willing people as a whole are to participate during this month and a half. Donít get me wrong, I donít think itís a bad thing. Sure this spirit would be an incredible thing to see year round and so much good could come, if even half of these charities persisted year round, but this is an entirely different kind of atmosphere. What is incredible about the pure joy surrounding the holidays and the willingness to participate is how it radiates throughout entire communities and how, for a month and a half, humanity can be viewed a little more positively.

Thereís so much going on in the world right now that I almost canít ignore it even in this short article. We are just a short time out from the horrific Paris attacks and in the midst of an absolute uproar and debate concerning Syrian Refugees being resettled in America. This may seem like a strange connection to make Ė the state of our world and Christmas charities Ė but I donít know that it is as strange as it may seem.

The joyful giving nature of our holiday season is something truly incredible and a phenomenon that sheds light on humanity each year. I think this spirit and unification of people all around the world, but specifically in our country, is just what we need. Now Iím not proposing that our Christmas joy is the solution to every problem. I am, however, suggesting that maybe the unification of humanity and the giving, selfless, loving, nature of people during this time of year is what needs to be transferred and cross-applied to our everyday dealing with the tragedies in our world. Maybe the Christmas charity we need to add to our list this year is applying the natural rejuvenation of our humanity to our current human situation.

The giving and receiving we experience in this time is beautiful, as is the general atmosphere of joy and love. There has to be room, not only to direct that towards our favorite local charities, but also to feel it and remember it in all of our interactions. We may not be able to do much individually, but there is a lot we can do as a whole. We can add the extra dollar at the end of our transaction on Black Friday, we can drop our change in every donation can we see, we can give our time through volunteering with soup kitchens or shoveling. We can cause change on a large scale if we all keep this joy, gratitude, and giving nature in our everyday exchanges from speaking to our families to discussing and considering matters of the world.

There truly is no better way to spend the season than capitalizing on our abnormally positive atmosphere and selves. Although it is hard to forget when we are surrounded by it all, we should work hard to keep this in mind. Every opportunity to volunteer, every extra dollar, and every charity is another chance to express to everyone around us how important it is to value the season and give back so that all can experience it in the similar ways.

I may have gotten a little off-topic as usual here. My hope is that we all see how the holiday season brings out a beautiful side of humanity that may be somewhat dormant throughout the year. This spirit shouldnít only be enjoyed, but should be spread in ways that may not be as obvious as the ringing bell and Santa Claus at the Wal-Mart entrance.

We have a real opportunity to do more than add the extra dollar; we can implement every component of our rejuvenated state into our everyday dealings and considerations leading every interaction in a new direction. Our Christmas Charities are the result of our Christmas spirit, and itís incredible to see what this spirit can do.

Read other articles by Leeanne Leary


Adopt a Family

Katie Powell
MSM Class of 2015

As you may know, I am a division I athlete. I am also the president of the Mount St. Maryís University Student Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC), and last year, I was the Community Service Committee Chair. As such, there are many demands placed on me time-wise, as well as physically, mentally, and financially.

Many of the things we do as student athletes are tiring and push us to our limits, but are very rewarding. Early morning practices, classes all day followed by a second practice, games on the weekends, away trips that we must miss classes for; they all cause a great deal of stress, but also give us great rewards in the end. However, the most rewarding thing we do as student athletes has nothing to do with practices, games, personal records, wins, or even our sports at all.

Community service, by far, gives us the greatest joy at the end of the day. It allows us to give back to the communities that have helped us grow in to the successful young people that we are. It is a chance for us to help others to also be the best people that they can be.

We always do community service initiatives with our specific teams, but there are special occasions when we come together as "The Mount" to make an even greater difference. For example, each year, SAAC hosts clothing and food drives for athletes to donate, as teams we volunteer our time at soup kitchens and working with children, showing them the sport we love. The holiday season is one of our most involved times, and is also home to my favorite holiday charity we do, Adopt a Family.

Adopt a Family is a nation-wide and very well known charity that assigns families to groups or other families who want to take part, and that group buys the gifts that the family asks for. The student athletic advisory committee works closely with a local church that puts a special twist on the classic Adopt a Family tradition.

We assign each team to a different age group, and they donate those toys to the church. The families then get to come to the church and "shop" for the toys that they want for their kids. It allows the families to remain anonymous, but also allows them to keep the job of getting the toys for their children. Last year, the swim team had the category of boys aged 6-8, and we were able to donate the most toys of the entire student athlete population. As a student-athlete body, we were able to donate over $1000 worth of toys to local families in need.

This year, as the holiday season yet again kicks off, we started our charity work with a clothing drive in October. Following that, we held a weeklong can drive before Thanksgiving to help struggling families celebrate one of the most important family nights of the year, country-wide. Finally, we spread holiday cheer throughout the month of December by running the annual Adopt a Family toy drive with joy and passion in our hearts. We hope to exceed our donation totals from last year and put smiles on even more young faces when the time comes.

I know that the holidays mean a great deal to many people, in many different ways. However one of the greatest things to me about the holiday season in general is the ability to tell our loved ones how we feel about them, and I think that is why I feel so strongly about our Adopt a Family adaptation here at the Mount. Community is one of our four pillars for several reasons. One of those reasons is that we are a fantastic community in ourselves, helping each other toward success. The other is that, as a whole, we reach out to those around us to further our nation.

The magic in a childís eyes when she opens a gift that you got her that says "from Santa Claus" is something that should never be taken away. It may sound clichť, but children are the future and deserve to grow in a loving and special environment. I think that for parents, knowing that their children wonít have that must be devastating. I cannot help but put myself in their shoes and imagine how I would feel, and I would hope that in that case, someone would reach out and help me. I imagine that there is a great loss of dignity in not being able to provide for oneís family, and I like to believe that we can help give that back, even if it is only through our small donations.

The holiday season is a time for giving, a time for love, and a time to spread cheer. This season, help spread those happy feelings to someone around you who is in need. There are people in our very neighborhood that will be struggling this year to put food on the table, provide their families with warm clothing, or try to give their children a "normal" Christmas. However, they donít have to be.

This holiday season is the time to donate or volunteer with whatever charity it is that speaks to you. Whether it be through Adopt a Family, a soup kitchen, a canned food drive, or an old coat drive, there is a way for you to help change the way your community celebrate the holidays!

Read other articles by Katie Powell

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