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Inclusive Effort Will Carry President’s Challenge

 Inclusive Effort Will Carry President’s Challenge

08/29/2011 

SUNY Cortland this fall will recruit students and community members from a range of spiritual traditions to establish a mentoring-training program for at-risk or disadvantaged Cortland County youth as part of a national effort that emphasizes interfaith cooperation in community service projects.

The College formally will launch the effort, part of the President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge, during commemoration ceremonies marking the 10-year anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The commemoration will follow a Habitat for Humanity project that serves as a build-up to the formal launch on Saturday, Sept. 10, and Sunday, Sept. 11. Students will have an opportunity to join the College’s mentoring-training program throughout the fall semester.

The national challenge, which includes 277 institutions across the country, seeks to encourage people from different religious and non-religious backgrounds to work together to meet community challenges. SUNY Cortland’s mentoring-training program will feed volunteers into agencies that have already been established in the community.

“Each institution has developed its own approach to the Interfaith Challenge,” said John Suarez, an Interfaith Challenge Planning Committee member and the coordinator of service learning for the College’s Institute for Civic Engagement. “We chose mentoring as a way of addressing poverty through improved educational opportunity.”

Habitat for Humanity’s Faith Build Blitz project will be held at 198 Clinton Ave. in Cortland and it lasts from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 10, and 3:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 11. Lunch will be provided Saturday and volunteers are required to bring a reusable water bottle and closed-toe shoes. A 2 p.m. community worship service, sponsored by the Council of Churches, will be held at the United Presbyterian Church of Cortland at 25 Church St. during Saturday’s build. The College’s Sept. 11, 2001 commemoration takes place Sunday, Sept. 11, at 9 p.m. in front of Corey Union to formally kick off the challenge.

Challenge organizers hope that the projects bring long-term benefits to Cortland County, where more than 18 percent of the county’s children live below the poverty line, and both the percentage of children in foster care and youths in need of court-ordered supervision are more than double the state average.

SUNY Cortland’s efforts will be coordinated by Campus Ministries to reinforce the interfaith nature of the projects. Everyone, regardless of spiritual beliefs, is invited to participate. The Interfaith Challenge includes people from diverse religious and nonreligious backgrounds. The proposed mentor program will look to connect faiths, as well as those who consider themselves agnostic or atheist, and it aims to develop individuals’ abilities to have positive relationships with people from different backgrounds or worldviews. This program will follow a long-term, sustainable model.

This fall, a committee composed of students and community members from different spiritual traditions will design the training. Once a mentor-training program is established, SUNY Cortland students will be trained to become mentor trainers this spring.

After SUNY Cortland students are recruited and trained on campus, Interfaith Challenge organizers will strive to connect them with high school students as early as the spring semester, when the College’s mentor trainers would train the high school students. During the same semester, the college students could also mentor at-risk children who would be identified by community agencies such as YMCA, YWCA, Access to Independence, the Cortland County Youth Bureau, Family Counseling Services and the Cortland Area Communities That Care.

The entire mentorship process will emphasize reflection, a crucial part of the College’s commitment to both service-learning and individual and community well being. The ability to understand the faith perspectives and behavior of others requires serious thought and consideration, Suarez said.

“Mentoring isn’t just taking a youngster out for ice cream,” Suarez said. “It’s a heavy responsibility.”

On the SUNY Cortland campus, officials also seek to increase in the number of interfaith and cross-cultural student events.

The SUNY Cortland interfaith team plans to track the impact of the challenge through online surveys. In addition to calculating the number of people and the number of hours invested in the projects, the College will look for improvements in children’s behavior and class grades. Habitat for Humanity numbers, including the number of structures completed and the number of people who benefitted from the building, also will be calculated.

People interested in joining SUNY Cortland’s Interfaith Challenge can contact Rev. Vicki Johnson, the College’s Protestant chaplain, at (607) 753-1002, or Marie Agen, the College’s Catholic chaplain, at (607) 753-6737.