Finding meaning in one’s work is an integral value that the instructors of Washington County Community College attempt to impart to their students. For anyone who has taken a class from Business Management instructor Rhonda French in the past 28 years, it won’t be a surprise to learn that she has been selected for a statewide award from WLBZ 2. French received the 2 Those Who Care award as a result of her numerous ongoing community-oriented efforts, including those she assists her students with.
Students that participate in French’s classes are guided to design service projects based on their own interests and evidence of need. During the design process, French encourages her students utilizing a formula that she says has always served her well: “Start small, dream big, work hard, stay focused, and surround yourself with good people.” As students begin to realize what they can accomplish, their aspirations grow. In her Supervisory Management class, for example, a few students proposed a dream of feeding the world. While that dream was understandably unrealistic, it did manifest into a service project that fed 1,300 displaced workers in Maine last Thanksgiving. Other students have sent Christmas boxes to troops overseas, filled with their favorite things, and another group held a holiday party at a nursing home, complete with Santa Claus. Some students choose projects overseas, such as one effort to send 50 pairs of shoes to children in Tanzania.
The impact on the students when they realize what they have accomplished is always noticeable, French shares. “It is pretty awesome to see students go from an attitude of ‘Oh well, here’s another team project’ to seeing the passion in their eyes as it starts coming to a reality of how much they really are making a difference!” Not only are students positively affected by their experience of working on a single project, most of French’s students remark in their post-project reflections that they will continue working to make a difference in the future.
Outside of the college, French is highly engaged in a community project known as “Let’s All Have a Merrier Christmas”. French was a founding member of the project, which began 32 years ago with 12 gifts given to 12 children in need. Now, more than 500 children a year are helped by the project.
Just as French imparts the desire to help others to her students, she once learned it herself from her parents. “As far back as I can remember we would ‘adopt’ a family each year at Christmas time,” French recalls. “My parents included me and my sister in shopping for the family and picking out just the right gifts.” The gifts would be delivered anonymously to the family in need. For the girls, opening their own gifts was doubly pleasurable as they imagined their adopted family’s reactions to their unexpected presents.
French’s daughters are now part of the process of giving back to the community. While she admits to feeling “guilty” at times for having spent so much of the holiday season raising donations for others, her daughters have been proud supporters of her efforts and they now volunteer their time freely. “We all agree that it also made our Christmas a lot merrier!” French enthused. Appropriately, her daughters were the first ones she told when she found out she had received the award.
“My initial reaction was total surprise, and then many other emotions came flooding in,” French said. “This is something that I have always done – it was instilled in me by my parents, and it was just something that we always did. So, to found out that I was getting a 2 Those Who Care award was totally unexpected.”
All recipients of the award are given a $500 gift to the charity of their choice. French selected the WCCC Scholarship Committee. The funds will go to a student in need that demonstrates true service to others.
Those who wish to contribute to Let’s All Have a Merrier Christmas may do so at merrierchristmas.com.