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College freshman orientation adds community service

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August 10, 2007

By MEGAN JAMES

ADDISON COUNTY — Eight brand new Middlebury College freshmen scraped at the pale blue paint on Lori and Mike Wallace’s Vergennes house on Labor Day weekend. The Wallaces had their hearts set on a new look: granite grey with pink trim.

“It’s unusual, I know, but it’s what we wanted,” Lori said.

The trouble was, both are disabled. Mike broke his neck and Lori suffered a brain hemorrhage a few years ago. So getting out there on ladders wasn’t really an option for them.

Luckily, through the Champlain Valley Agency on Ageing (CVAA) the couple was paired up with 10 eager college students — two upperclassmen led the group — looking for some way to get to know the community before diving into their first semester.

The students, who started classes on Monday, were part of Middlebury Outdoor Orientation (MOO), a 20-year-old program that this year drew more than 200 of the 645 incoming freshmen. MOO is designed to give new students a feel for the environment surrounding the college while offering them an opportunity to bond with each other.

As is typical, most of the participants spent the three days of Labor Day weekend in 28 small groups, rock climbing, hiking, canoeing and camping. But for five of the groups MOO this year provided a chance to give back to the community. First-year students in those five groups played with area children, collected invasive water chestnuts from the Poultney River and worked in the college’s organic garden.

Senior Austen Levihn-Coon led a group of 11 new students cleaning up and decorating Addison County Teens’ (ACT) new Middlebury hang-out, called 94 Main. The first-year students worked with more than a dozen area teens painting two murals on the inside walls, one that depicted the Otter Creek falls and one stylistic interpretation of the teen center rules.

They hung coat hooks and sawed lengths of lumber for shelves, and when they got tired of the hard work, they all went outside and played a game of ultimate Frisbee.

ACT director Erik Shonstrom said the event was a success by all accounts, especially since many of the new students expressed an interest in more volunteer opportunities with the teen center. He’s hoping to see future events that bridge the gap between high school and college. 

“Younger volunteers, college age particularly, really create an environment where the kids feel that this space is their own,” he said. “The best mentors are those people who understand the teens, who speak the same language.”

Meanwhile, back at the Wallaces’ in Vergennes, only one of the students had experience painting, so Lori’s mother kept them on track.

“She helped us with the trim, gave us pointers,” said junior Maeve Whelan-Wuest, one of the group leaders. “They were all super nice. Lori and Mike were inside… they had a cooler with cold water and soda.”

They couldn’t have done the project without the students’ help, Lori said, and meeting them all was such a treat.

“One was from China, one was from New York City and one was from Boston,” she said. “They did a great job, and we learned a lot from them.”

For Whelan-Wuest, being able to see a change in the Wallaces’ house was the best part. 

“At the end of the day when we stepped back from what we had done, it was right there in front of us,” she said. “It was a tangible reward.”

Her group completed two and a half sides of the Wallace’s house, but she plans to return next weekend with another gaggle of volunteers to finish the job. Many of the new students who worked with her on last weekend wanted to do it again, she said. And not only have they begun to form a relationship with their classmates, but they also have begun to form a relationship with the larger community.

“The great thing is, before they’ve even started (college) they already have an affiliation with an organization,” she said.

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