Two students from the University of Lynchburg’s Bonner Leader Program spent the summer serving others through the Shepherd Higher Education Consortium on Poverty, an organization that combines education and community service.
As Aly Bonilla ’22 put it, it got them out of their “bubble.”
“We often live in this bubble, where we only know our problems and are only concerned with ourselves,” Bonilla, who worked with the Prevention Council of Roanoke County, Virginia, said. “SHECP forces you out of that bubble. It requires you to think more broadly and be confronted by situations you may have never been exposed to before.”
Bonilla and Ullunda Veal ’22, who served at The Family Center in Helena, Arkansas, spent two months in SHECP’s Summer Internship Program. SHECP’s mission aligns with that of the Bonner Leader Program, in which students spend up to four years working in the community on issues like education, hunger, homelessness, and sustainability.
Bonilla, an English major with a minor in secondary education, performed a variety of duties at the Prevention Council, a nonprofit that focuses on substance abuse and its effect on the community. She did office work, presentations, community outreach, and also drafted a bill for the Virginia House of Delegates.
The bill is “regarding the implementation of medication disposal drop boxes at pharmacies in the state of Virginia,” Bonilla said near the end of her internship. She added that the bill is currently in the editing process and folks at the Prevention Center will “have to find a sponsor to begin the process of going up the ladder with hopes of it eventually being passed.”
At The Family Center, which focuses on domestic violence, homelessness, and other issues, Veal worked in the office and at the shelter and food bank. She also helped write her first grant.
If funded, the grant will provide a community kitchen for homeless men and women to “come in and have a hot meal and gather resources to help put them back to a better starting point than before,” Veal said. “It’s more of an empowerment [thing] and helping them be more independent for themselves.”
The City of Helena, where The Family Center is located, was recently listed among the nation’s poorest cities by USA Today. Veal, a philosophy major, said one of the things she learned through her internship is how rural poverty differs from urban, especially when it comes to finding resources to help people.
“When trying to do grants for poverty-stricken areas, there are less things offered,” she said. “It’s difficult to find grants for places like Helena. Sometimes, people have a hard time wanting to listen to the voices in rural areas.
“You have to keep pushing and pushing to let the people know that people are still here. I’m only here for two months but people continue to live here and live their lives, and it’s just a lot to process.”
Veal said another thing she learned was how to better communicate with people about sensitive issues, like abuse, and how to be a better listener. “Sometimes, it’s not … about giving your opinion or ‘This is what I think,’ but kind of letting the person know that you’re there to listen, and sometimes that’s what a person really needs,” she said.
Bonilla said the experience gave her a closer look at the current addiction epidemic. “We need to understand how this came to be so we can take steps to hopefully remove the stigma behind addiction and help others want to seek help,” she said.
“Additionally, we need to start including those in recovery in conversations regarding addiction. On my first day at this internship, I was told that ‘addiction is the only disease that requires people suffering from it to be in the room when discussing solutions,’ and that has stuck with me.”
In her spare time, Veal, a first time visitor to Arkansas, got to experience the local culture. In addition to the humidity — “Arkansas is hot!” she said — there were other things that surprised her. “Blues is definitely heavily embedded,” she said. “It’s fascinating to kind of see how people look up to music as a release. Arkansas has definitely been an eye opener.”
She also had the opportunity to explore Memphis, which is not far from Helena, with three other SHECP interns. There, she discovered Memphis barbecue, walked on the Beale Street, and visited the National Civil Rights Museum, which is located in the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968.
And these and other experiences came at no cost, thanks to SHECP’s internship program. “How else can you travel to Arkansas or New York or D.C. for free?” Veal said. “Plus, it’s also about providing a helping hand — not seeing yourself as the savior but as a person that’s willing to help other people in need.”