Learning Through Engagement

The participants in the summer SUCCEED program devote eight weeks to working with high-risk youth in a variety of settings. This summer they collectively served more than 5,000 hours with high-risk youth in 16 community settings.

It’s a steamy summer evening at the community park complex, and athletes are warmed up and ready to enjoy soccer, bocce ball, Frisbee golf or kickball. Sweaty players pass high-fives and turn their attention to the next teammate up, making sure everyone is cheered on. What makes this experience exceptional is that young adults with special needs are paired with cadets to learn and play together.

For the last three summers, the City of Charleston Therapeutic Recreation program and the nonprofit PlayToday! Foundation, along with The Citadel Service Learning and Civic Engagement (SLCE) program, have collaborated to offer a Sports Sampler, which includes a shared supper designed to teach participants how to independently prepare healthy, nutritious food. Cadets in the SUCCEED program, an eight-week summer service learning intiative, look forward to their Tuesday nights on the Charleston Miracle League field in spite of being weary from their long days in Title I school programs and camps.

For many of the SUCCEED fellows and other cadet volunteers, the Sports Sampler provides a first opportunity to spend time with young adults who have disabilities. As developing leaders, the SUCCEED fellows experience diversity in the context of a shared team effort, which prepares them for future leadership roles in which they will interact with people with differing abilities.

Aaron Fowler, a sophomore cadet who plans to go into a healthcare profession, was drawn to the program because of the opportunity to teach the importance of nutrition. Junior cadet and varsity soccer player Hannah Roth found joy in sharing her love of sports and fitness with people who might not often access group recreational opportunities. Sophomore Cadet Dakota Durham summed up the common feeling of most of our cadet volunteers: “I was definitely excited about going to help out at the Sports Sampler,” she said, “but meeting the people there made the experience outstanding. I cannot wait to participate again.”

For Community Engagement Fellow Mike Akers, ’19, the Sports Sampler program was a fitting example of how the Four-Year Leadership Model—prepare, engage, serve and lead—can be applied to organizations. “This summer those who volunteered prepared for each Tuesday event, engaged with the young adult participants from as soon as they arrived to the moment they left, served the larger Charleston community by working to empower youth who have special needs, and led in either an athletic sports game or a healthy dinner explanation,” he said.

The Sports Sampler is part of a long Citadel tradition of learning by serving with people who have special needs. The site of the Sports Sampler, the Charleston Miracle League field, was founded by Channing Proctor, ’91, who ensured that cadets had an opportunity to work with Miracle League baseball players, Title I school children experiencing team sports through Wiffle ball, and now the Sports Sampler. The Halloween and Valentine’s Day Buddy Dances, started by Mike Palazzo, ’94, and his fellow psychology majors, have been some of the most popular and high-impact events on campus for the last 25 years.

For more than a decade, Citadel volunteers have stepped up as coaches for unified sports and Special Olympics, locally and regionally. They have been a mainstay in the Down Syndrome Association of the Lowcountry Buddy Walk since its inception. Likewise, cadet volunteers have played a critical role in the success of Camp Rise Above, volunteering in the summer, serving on the boards and engaging in scholarly collaboration to help evaluate the programs. In all of these experiences, cadets who sign up in an effort to help someone else often report that they were helped as much as or more than those they set out to serve.

How important are these experiences? The influence for Wes Hayes, who graduated in May, was so great that he chose to wear his Camp Rise Above t-shirt under his graduation uniform as testimony to its impact on his life.

The participants in the summer SUCCEED program devote eight weeks to working with high-risk youth in a variety of settings. This summer they collectively served more than 5,000 hours with high-risk youth in 16 community settings. They tutored and mentored children from Title I schools in six different settings, and they supported camps and summer enrichment programs for children and youth with a variety of special developmental and healthcare needs. After the summer SUCCEED program experience, the majority of the 10 to 15 participating cadets will go on to be leaders in service learning, in the community and in the Corps of Cadets. Many will be more effective and empathetic leaders after their experiences with the summer Sports Sampler.

Psychology professor and Service Learning and Civic Engagement Director Conway Saylor, Ph.D., is passionate about creating opportunities to bring cadets and people who have disabilities together in work and play. Recreational activities allow people to move beyond preconceived notions about limitations and begin to recognize the value and assets of others. Saylor volunteers alongside the cadets at the summer Sports Sampler program.