Where Exceptional Begins

A World of Service: Mount Union Celebrates the Social Responsibility Trip’s 25th Year

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This story appears in the Exceptional Education section of the Fall/Winter 2016 edition of the Mount Union Magazine. 

image5When Dr. Steve Kramer, semi-retired professor of psychology at the University of Mount Union, finished college, he decided to dedicate his first two years as a graduate teaching as a volunteer in Iraq.

“I had never left the United States before going to Baghdad,” he said, smiling. That experience changed the way I looked at so many different things—myself, the world, and the role of the United States. Now I’ve traveled to over 70 countries. I’m still trying to knock more off the list.”

This first trip ignited a passion for travel and service in Kramer that led him to develop the Social Responsibility class at the University of Mount Union 26 years ago. As a part of this class, students travel to countries like Haiti, Panama, Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador and others to learn the importance of giving back. Kramer believes this encourages them to continue to give back when they return home, just as his first volunteering trip did for him.

On these trips, students often sleep in shared spaces in homes throughout the community (not hotels), and have even slept outside. He has the students interact with and talk to people about their experiences in the communities and country in which they live. Many of the projects Kramer and his students complete include infrastructure development and maintenance, such as digging latrines, constructing stoves, building homes, and more.

Abby Honaker ‘11 had the opportunity to take Kramer’s Social Responsibility class and participate in the service trip during her senior year at Mount Union. When Honaker arrived in El Salvador with her group that year, she was on the team helping to build houses in the community. She was not prepared, however, for how this work would affect her.

“The bricks we used to build the houses were made of mud and water. They let us help to make some of them, and we stood in these troughs in our bare feet and stomped to churn the mixture. They would pour them in to molds and let them harden in the sun,” she explained.

They had pre-made bricks for the houses Honaker and her team helped build, but seeing this process, experiencing this work, and caulking these mud bricks with even more mud and water, changed something in her.

“It really opened my eyes,” Honaker said. “After that experience, I knew I had to do something meaningful with my life. I had to give back.”

The work itself was not the only thing that inspired Honaker to focus on a life of service. The people she met in El Salvador and relationships she built will be with her forever.

“I didn’t speak any Spanish,” she laughed, “not many of us could. So, while we worked, we communicated with the locals mostly throsr-trips-074ugh facial expressions. It was an absolutely incredible thing to experience.”

Honaker was moved by the people’s generosity, their compassion, and their hospitality. She recalled that before they left for El Salvador, they were told that they would want to leave everything they’d brought with the people they met.

“I didn’t think about it too much then or really believe it,” she said, “but all I brought back to the States were two pairs of pants and the clothes I was wearing. I left everything else with them. I wanted to leave more.”

Before going on the social responsibility trip, Honaker had never considered nonprofit jobs as a potential career path. Now just five years later, Honaker is Director of the Regula Center here at Mount where she helps to make students aware of these career opportunities as well as volunteer jobs and community outreach efforts. During her time working at the Regula Center, she has noticed that students are much more interested in volunteering and service in general, a trend for which she is grateful.

“No two days at my job are the same, and I love it. I’m on half a dozen nonprofit boards in Alliance, I am the advisor for the service fraternity, I get to go out into the community to do work. I love being able to be the person to represent Mount Union in the community and that I’ve been able to give back.”

Now when students visit various countries, Kramer tries to get them involved in sustainability projects. He says that making students aware of how much environmental issues affect these communities is something they could not fully comprehend without these first-hand experiences. Through this work, Kramer has touched the lives of countless students, instructors, and individuals across a myriad of countries.

“I think it’s important to show the students that we aren’t just in this together as a country, but as a member of the world community. We need to be exploring our responsibility in addressing these issues” Kramer explained.

image3Kramer understands most students would never get the opportunity to serve these areas without the help of his class, which is why he started the program in the first place. Although the trip only takes place for a week or so over spring break, the students are exposed to these countries, cultures, and the services they help provide. Kramer hopes this will broaden their horizons and encourage them to continue giving back, just as his first volunteering trip did for him.

“I hope that, even after I leave, the trip continues,” Kramer said, “I think people enjoy it, and the camaraderie I see form between individuals in the group is one of the most rewarding parts of the experience. Often, these friendships become some of the most important in their college careers.”

This year during homecoming and alumni weekend, the social responsibility trip gathered to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the program. Dozens of alumni who have attended the trip over the years traveled from all over the country to meet again during the weekend festivities. Kramer has headed several alumni social responsibility trips over the past few years, which have been equally as popular as the student trips.

“When you think about the number of lives that Dr. Kramer has touched throughout his career—at Mount Union, in Alliance and around the world—it’s incredible, and it’s inspiring,” said Andrew Lattaner ’01, who participated in the trip during his time at Mount. “He is a treasure, and I know that I am one of many who feel very fortunate to know him as a professor, mentor and friend.”

He went on to say that the opportunity to work with Kramer and to travel to El Salvador was the most meaningful experience he had at Mount Union. “It’s so much more than a class and a service trip,” he continued, “it’s about learning to understand complex issues from different perspectives, to live with gratitude, and to see the opportunity to do good and serve others through our actions both large and small.”

Kramer has touched the lives of countless students, instructors, and individuals across a myriad of countries. He has helped open the eyes and hearts of UMU students and given them the opportunity to experience places, people, and activities that they otherwise might never have seen or known. To students like Abby and Andrew, these experiences are not only unforgettable, but they helped shape who they are.sr-trips-006

Honaker recalled a photo that she still has sitting in her office today of her and two young girls, the daughters of the man that oversaw the building project in El Salvador. The photo was taken the day the group was leaving, when they had to say goodbye.

“And I thought, you know, these could be my kids. And the worst part is, I don’t even know their names, or how to find them. But that is the real reward—continuing to do the work even when you don’t know the outcomes.”

To alumni like Abby and Andrew, these experiences are not only unforgettable, but they helped shape who they are today. Kramer continues to run this class despite his semi-retirement, and if it continues to touch lives, change minds and inspire empathy and community engagement, it doesn’t look like it will be stopping any time soon.

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