Volume 45 Number 2
Learning the value of community engagement
Say “spa” to most people and they will conjure up visions of fluffy bathrobes and a day of pampering, but not to Gaylla Finnell’s students at Imperial Valley College who are engaged in a very different spa – Students for Political Awareness.
A SPA day for these students may mean delivering food to impoverished areas of the county, tutoring disadvantaged children in an after-school program, sending tubes of sun block or Halloween treat bags to soldiers in Iraq, or sponsoring a campus showing of a documentary on the perils for immigrants crossing the nearby All America Canal.
“It’s not just political action. It’s political awareness. These students are trying to make people more aware of issues that our community and nation are facing. They are learning to be part of the solution,” Finnell says.
From club to class
The program initially began in 2004 when students in Finnell’s American Government class decided to hold a rally to debate reinstating the draft. The students found so much to say they decided to turn their energy into a club on campus. As an advisor, however, Finnell found it difficult to maintain continuity in the club with the turnover in student leadership. To address this problem, Finnell incorporated service-learning into her American Government courses, which provides the opportunity for new students to learn the importance of community service and to be active participants in SPA.
SPA is more than a compilation of “do-good” projects, however. In addition to showing the students the value of volunteerism, it is filling an unmet need in the community. There is likely to be a long-term impact as well. For example, with the Dream Builders after-school tutoring project in place, Finnell is hopeful that more underserved African American and Hispanic students will enroll at Imperial Valley College in the future.
The church pastor at Sweet Home Missionary Baptist Church in El Centro shares that hope.
“It has changed attitudes about kids going to college,” says Rev. James Porter. “For many of these students, college was not an option. Now these kids have gone from failing to honor roll. Several of our past students are in college right now. That to me is a blessing.”
In addition to supplying tutors, Finnell recently applied for and received a $17,000 technology grant from AT&T to purchase laptop computers and create a computer lab in the church hall for the program. Until recently, the pastor had been using his own computer for the 30 children in attendance.
Mentors and role models
Finnell’s students are not only tutors to the neighborhood children, they are mentors and role models as well, especially to the middle- and high-school students.
“My students have embraced this project and have connected with the children. This has worked because the community invited us in and has treated us like family. A lot of government programs fail because they don’t connect. That’s been the difference,” Finnell says.
The tutors themselves also find the program enriching.
“The kids seem to appreciate the help. They will bring back their homework with ‘A’s on it,” says Will Haro, an IVC student who is considering a future in teaching. “That makes me feel good.”
Each Thanksgiving for the past several years SPA members have collected food items and prepared more than 600 Thanksgiving meals for residents living in the north county in the impoverished communities of Niland, Bombay Beach, and nearby Slab City, a former World War II military base inhabited by a conglomeration of “snow birders,” aging Hippies, vagabonds and children. The SPA students return again at Christmas time with gifts to fill the wish lists from families in the area. Last year alone, they brought 60 bicycles as gifts for the children.
“We have returning, current and future IVC students helping out. It’s really grown over the years,” Finnell said. “A lot of our students had never even been to Niland, so it’s an education for them.”
In addition to their volunteer work, SPA students hold regular fundraiser to support the various projects. In fact, close to $18,000 is raised each year. Although the core group of students consists of about a dozen students, as many as 300 get involved in the projects throughout the year.
Finnell’s students have also received “an education” on immigration issues which are so prominent in Imperial County which borders Mexico. Recently, her students presented a screening of “The 800 Mile Wall,” a documentary that examines immigrant deaths along the border. They have also testified before meetings of the irrigation board on safety measures that must be implemented to prevent drowning deaths in the nearby canal. In preparation for the showing, students visited the local cemetery where many immigrants are buried in unmarked paupers’ graves and invited guest speakers to participate in a “town hall” discussion following the film showing.
“How great of an education is that?” Finnell marveled, noting she had left the entire activity in their hands. “It was amazing to see them interacting with each other. Some of these students had never spoken up in class. This experience transformed them.”
Finnell knows that political activists are not always welcome in this conservative community with a large military and agricultural presence. A minister’s wife and one-time probation officer, Finnell has deep roots in the community and has worked hard to gain community support and trust.
It’s the relationship
“We are not taking positions. We don’t alienate people. We’ve really had to go out to organizations to develop relationships. Now they know they can come to us with their needs. It’s the relationship that impacts the community,” she said.
Indeed, participating in SPA has been a life-changing experience for quite a few Imperial Valley College students, including Gloria Lay, a graduate of IVC who is now a nurse and is enrolled in a master’s program at San Diego State University. Lay initially became involved in SPA in 2004, when the club was raising funds for Hurricane Katrina victims. She went on to help found the Dream Builders program at the church. Through SPA, Gloria also became an intern in the office of state Sen. Denise Ducheny. A U.S. Army veteran, Lay started community college in her late 20’s, after moving to the Imperial Valley with her husband.
“SPA has opened so many doors to me,” she says. “I’ve seen so many changes in myself. It’s been a great outlet for me to learn about the community and to get involved. I’ve learned that if you want to live, you have to give.”
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