Panelists urge women to ‘dig in’ to community service

Becky Bowman

Jennifer Schmitt, an engineer in her late 20s, said she has drifted from her commitment to community service. She wants to get involved again, but she said she always encounters a “mental block,” eventually deciding that she does not have enough time.

Schmitt sought advice Saturday from a panel of community leaders at Northwestern’s Women in Leadership Conference. The four female panelists urged the audience of about 100 women and two men to take leadership roles in community service.

The panelists were Delores Holmes, executive director of Family Focus; Aracely Canchola of the Evanston Health and Human Services Department; Mary Beth Schroeder, executive director of Leadership Evanston; and Ingrid Stafford, NU’s associate vice president for finance. Susan Johnston, NU coordinator of student community service, moderated.

“How do you get past the ‘block’ and re-cycle into it?” Schmitt asked the panelists during a question-and-answer session.

“What is it that you enjoy about not being so busy?” replied Stafford, an NU alumna.

A quick show of hands during the presentation showed that most audience members are or had been involved in community service. Like Schmitt, many indicated that they thought they were constrained by other activities.

“It’s really a struggle to prioritize,” said Melissa McGonegle, an Education sophomore who attended the panel discussion in McCormick Auditorium with her mother.

Stepping up involvement often requires scaling back other commitments, panelists said. In fact, Evanston Mayor Lorraine H. Morton was scheduled to take part in the panel but canceled early last week because of another commitment.

Stafford said she has had to accept that she can’t do everything.

“I don’t cook,” said Stafford, who is also a member of the steering committee of Leadership Evanston. “It’s okay if I don’t do everything that everyone expects of me, or that I expect of myself.”

“Dig in where you can make a difference,” Stafford said.

Other panelists stressed the importance and benefits of community service, offering advice and examples from their own lives.

Even at a young age, women can make a difference in the community, said Canchola, who works with a youth group of sixth- through ninth-graders at a church in Evanston.

“I’m 23 and I feel like I’ve done so much,” she said. “I have this mentality that I can change the world.”

Canchola said she feels indebted to the Evanston community for help she received growing up and that those who aren’t part of the solution are part of the problem.

“It’s cliché, but it’s true,” Canchola said. “You get back much more than you give.”

Schroeder, a longtime teacher who became executive director of Leadership Evanston, got her start in volunteering in a local PTA. She advised volunteers to treat service projects as job commitments, to know their own limitations and to avoid taking on too much. Holmes said it often helps for volunteers to be involved in something they already enjoy.

Weinberg senior Brooke Hatton said, “It was interesting to hear more about the groups that I have been involved with or heard a lot about on campus.”

Schmitt said the panel put her on track to overcoming her mental block.

“I just need to get involved with these things,” she said.