Reaching out

Since Melissa McGonegle was a junior at Lincoln Park High School on Chicago’s North Side, she has spent her vacations doing everything from delivering meals to Atlanta AIDS patients to building playgrounds for the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma.

Now an Education freshman, McGonegle has continued the volunteer work she started with the Civic Education Project in high school by participating in Northwestern’s Alternative Spring Break.

“I really don’t see it as giving up my vacation time,” she said. “I think I had a better time on ASB than anybody who went to Acapulco.”

Rob Donahue, an NU graduate, organized CEP in 1997 after launching NU’s ASB program. CEP sends Chicago-area high school students on community service trips around the nation. In addition to volunteering, the program teaches students about relevant social, political and economic issues.

“I had a real interest in connecting what was going on in classes with what was going on in the world,” Donahue said. “(In school) I didn’t have such an up-close and personal view of what I was learning about.”

This Spring Break 40 students from 20 local high schools are participating in CEP. Currently, a team of students is working with the Catholic Charities in St. Paul, Minn., to learn about urban poverty, homelessness, HIV and AIDS. In April three other groups will learn about youth violence and conflict resolution in Detroit as well as rural poverty in Morehead, Ky.

Donahue said sending students as young as high school sophomores on service trips raises their consciousness about social issues and makes them more active when they reach college.

“It gives kids a glimpse of the world beyond their little bubble,” he said.

Donahue recently received a Social Entrepreneur Award from Youth Service America for creating the program, which is affiliated with NU’s Center for Talent Development.

The first CEP trip in 1997 sent eight high school students to Atlanta. Other trips included working in Boston and Washington, D.C. Applicants are selected based on academics and leadership potential.

“We’re looking to develop future leaders,” Donahue said.

Besides preparing meals and working with children, the students learn about broader political and economic situations. They listen to guest speakers and are encouraged to keep journals about their experiences.

One adult coordinator and two college students, usually from NU, go along with the students to spark discussions and to focus them on the broader picture of the project, not just their daily tasks.

“Rather than helping out in the short term, hopefully they’re going to make a difference in the long term with this knowledge,” Donahue said.

After the week is over, CEP helps the students coordinate a volunteer project of their choice to work on for a weekend in the Chicago area.

“It was really a good way to link our experience back to home,” McGonegle said.

Most of the participants McGonegle met during the trips were already involved in volunteer work before joining the program. Their commitment was enhanced by the trip, which is one of the goals of CEP.

“Ideally the kids stay involved, and experience has shown that they do,” Donahue said.