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KERA's One Crisis Away project focuses on North Texans living on the financial edge.

Swapping Socials For Service Work: Dallas Baptist Freshmen Hit The Ground Running

Most universities host "move-in weeks" for new students; think orientation sessions, mixers and cookouts. Freshmen at Dallas Baptist University are also expected to commit a full day to community service.

During orientation, or "SWAT week," freshmen have time for fun, figuring out schedules and decorating dorm rooms. When Friday rolls around, though, it's time to leave campus, and get to work.

A Labor Of Love

For hours, students scrub showers with bleach, sweep floors, sort through donated clothes and do load after load of laundry. Towards the end of the afternoon, the 50 or so students volunteering at Cornerstone Baptist Church in South Dallas are beat. But they're happy.

"A lot of us were just sleepy when we got here and then when we walked up it was kind of... it was just like refreshing to see that we were actually impacting something that was so close to us,” says freshman Jacey Harris.

Harris is from Decatur, and says until this volunteer experience, she had no idea how many people in Dallas were living on the financial edge. Cornerstone Baptist does a lot for people in poverty. The church serves meals, has a row of hot showers for folks who have no place to take a bath, and a closet full of clothes in every style and size.

"It's just really awesome to see that they have this place to go to and opens my eyes because back at home, I didn't ever have to worry about something like this. And there are girls my age having to worry about this in this place,” she says.

A Tradition

And that's what this day of service is designed to teach.  Dallas Baptist University debuted the new-student-week tradition 26 years ago. This year, 600 freshmen and 200 upperclassmen were deployed all over North Texas. They spent an entire day working in soup kitchens, childcare centers and clothing closets to serve people living in poverty-- people who also happen to live in their own backyard.

Brandon Garcia, a junior, says for him, it's important to consider how much basic amenities like a clean shower mean to someone who's used to going without.

"I never thought this would be something that someone would just be so desperate to have whenever I do this every day. I need to be thankful for what I have and everything that I take for granted,” he says.

As the DBU students work to help people out in the community, they say they're also getting to know each other, in a very real way. Sophomore Haven Stevens says hard work is the great equalizer.

"You are tired together and you may start to see people's weaknesses, but also you really get to see those strengths. Because you get to see those strengths pushing through these hard and tiring moments,” she says.

A Source Of Inspiration

While this day of service may be a requirement for every new student, many find it rewarding, even inspiring.

"It's been really interesting to see. Makes me want to just go out and see more. It's very eye-opening. And also, we're 16 minutes away from campus. All this is going on right outside DBU, and it's so easy to reach out to these people,” says Stevens.

This service work isn't the end for the DBU freshman class. All first year students must clock 18 volunteer hours per semester. Scholarship-holders must log time in the field too. Brandon Garcia says that's a win for everyone involved.

"Serving together forms a bond, especially as followers of Christ. That we would go into our mission field and just be the light in darkness, and get to join arms and just get to grow closer to each other, grow closer to those that we're serving and grow closer to God at the same time,” he says.

Which might explain why after six hours of manual labor at Cornerstone Baptist Church, the students are still on their feet, and smiling.

Courtney Collins has been working as a broadcast journalist since graduating from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2004. Before coming to KERA in 2011, Courtney worked as a reporter for NPR member station WAMU in Washington D.C. While there she covered daily news and reported for the station’s weekly news magazine, Metro Connection.