By Valerie Miller
University of Indianapolis

INDIANAPOLIS - The end of the school year signals the start of summer - a time when many students look forward to part-time jobs, family vacations and a break from school. But at the end of this school year, six students, three faculty/staff members and one community member will be packing their bags and heading to Liberia for a three week service trip as part of a spring term course at the University of Indianapolis.

The group, led by Charles Guthrie, associate professor of history and political science at UIndy, will travel to the rural town of Kpain in eastern Liberia from May 22 to June 14 to build a school in the country ravaged by a violent 13-year civil war. In preparation for the group's arrival, community members and students who will attend the school to be built have already begun making bricks for the structure.

The project has been organized in collaboration with Operation Classroom of the United Methodist Church and will be hosted by the UMC in Liberia. The west African nation has been in the rebuilding process for two to three years, but still has a long way to go.

A United Methodist and teacher of African history, Guthrie said the choice to go to Liberia makes sense. "I've known about Operation Classroom since it started, and in the past we've had Liberian Methodist students at the university," he explains. "The United Methodist Church also has roots in Liberia that go back to the 19th century, and there is a significant Liberian population in Indianapolis today. So based on our interest in service and all the ties to the church, it just seemed to be a logical connection."

Group members include Guthrie; Jason Adams, freshman; Jason Blankenship, graduate student; Derek Eby, freshman; Lydia Fischer, junior; Paul Gabonay, director of career services; Rick Irmer, community member; Sarah Kelich, freshman; Lyndsay McBride, freshman; and Connie Pumpelly, professor of athletic training.

"We have a very diverse group in terms of background, experience and age, but everyone is committed to going, each for his or her own reasons," Guthrie said.

Wanting to go

Rick Irmer, for example, the community member who runs a small construction company, has been wanting to go on a service trip. "I have always wanted to do something like this," he notes. "But I always put it off. When Charlie asked about going on this trip, it just felt right and I knew I would go."

Others echo his desire to help. "I really like to volunteer and I love to help out people whenever I can," Kelich explained. She has been to five other countries, but never to one in the third world, and is looking forward to it being different from "every other touristy vacation I have been on," because she will be able to help others and gain understanding into how other people live.

Looking forward

In addition to service, other group members are looking forward to experiencing a people and culture so different from their own. "This trip will give me a chance to learn about a culture I have never encountered," Eby said. He hopes that will lead to better understanding and appreciation for people of different backgrounds and ways of life.

While the group has been seeking donations for the trip, all money collected will go directly to the project and the Liberian people. Each group member is funding his or her own trip expenses.

The group also has been meeting each Sunday to bond and prepare for the trip. They use the time to get to know each other, learn about Liberia's culture and history, discuss preparations for the trip and talk about the concerns they may have about going.

Many in the group hope to return home with a renewed sense of appreciation for their own lives.