Extraordinary Service

MSUM alumni serve where they’re called—across the globe and in their own backyards

Helping those in need doesn’t require a generous donation or physical labor. Often, it’s the relationships built that play the most crucial role in empowering the downtrodden. It’s the knowledge shared that inspires growth. It’s the open arms and loving home that provide opportunities for a new outlook on life.

The simplest acts of service often have the greatest impact.

Living a Life of Service

A great deal can happen during one revolution around the sun. One can change jobs. Quit a bad habit. Master a new hobby. Create unforgettable memories. Forge a new path. Forgive. Learn. Grow.

Seth O’Neill ’14 (social work) took a leap into the unknown that altered his life’s trajectory.

Hailing from Detroit Lakes, Minn., O’Neill had but a slight glimpse of diversity before enrolling at MSUM.

“Diversity was never talked about or introduced in a conversation. I didn’t know what white privilege meant,” O’Neill said. “It was huge for me to hear some of these (social justice and diversity) issues and realize people have a lot of different world views and opinions, and part of that is based on their culture and socioeconomic status. Once I understood that, I wanted to learn more. I wanted to expand my horizons and learn how I can be a part of social justice.”

Not knowing what life after college would bring, O’Neill resolved to quench his thirst for knowledge by joining the World Race (worldrace.org). A worldwide Christian organization, the World Race provides an opportunity for those ages 21-35 to serve across the globe, sending groups of 40 “racers” to 11 countries in 11 months.

O’Neill embarked on the yearlong mission trip in September 2014, where he served in North and South America, Africa and Asia. The experience was profoundly eye-opening.

“The first place we went was in Haiti, and I had never been to a developing country before. I remember getting on the bus in Haiti and looking out the window, seeing just awful, awful poverty,” O’Neill said. “Kids on the road and people begging for food. I remember being so overwhelmed at the time; not knowing what I could do to help. You feel so helpless in those situations when there’s so much you can do and trying to find little places to help along the way.”

The organizations O’Neill worked with in each country had varied missions. Duties and service were tailored to each participant’s knowledge, skills and interests.

O’Neill worked in orphanages in Cambodia and Vietnam, conducted home visits with the St. Nicholas Home for the Blind in Malaysia, invited villagers to church events in Malawi, endeavored to get women out of the sex trafficking industry in Thailand, and a great deal more.

“One month I got to be a school counselor with my social work background in Zambia,” O’Neill said. “We spent the month sleeping in our tents at a rural youth camp in the Amazon Basin (in Bolivia). We worked on construction projects, including building pathways through the camp by collecting rocks from a local river and mixing them with cement as those were the only resources nearby.”

Aside from daily, gritty service to communities across the globe, participants strove to empower those they met along the way. The World Race partners with local organizations in each country to ensure they’re assisting with ongoing efforts; taking advice from locals instead of starting new programs.

“I thought I was going to go in and help in a positive and profound way,” O’Neill said. “And yes, you can certainly do that. But a bigger overall thing is to learn. We have so much to learn from people in different countries. I think the more impactful work we can do is to empower the local people in these places.”

Since returning to the U.S., O’Neill’s career track morphed to incorporate his experiences. He received his master's of social work and spent a year working at the White Earth Reservation. Now, he’s pursuing a law degree at the University of North Dakota, focusing on international human rights law.

“(After returning) I was so overwhelmed with the amount of stuff that happens in the world and how complex it really is. I learned from the World Race that there aren’t simple solutions sometimes,” O’Neill said. “I have this thirst for curiosity and wanting to find solutions. So, I saw law school as the next step in trying to incorporate these things I’m learning and being able to work on the policy element to make things better.”

No matter where life takes him, O’Neill will never forget the lessons he learned serving others across the globe.

“I learned that these places and these people are more than a news headline,” O’Neill said. “You can serve wherever you are at. You don’t have to get on a plane to be of service to people and to love people. You can do that in your backyard, or you can do that in Zimbabwe.”

Speaking Life's Universal Language

After 34 years of teaching music, Tamara (Kolb) Calhoun ’81 (music) retired in June 2015. While many Minnesota retirees are content leading quiet lives involving lake cabins and relaxation, Calhoun took only a five-month hiatus before beginning an unexpected adventure.

In a world with nearly 7,000 living languages, music is universal. Calhoun is using her talent to spread the beauty of music one lesson, one classroom at a time.

An active member of First Presbyterian of St. Cloud, Calhoun was invited to tour the schools her church and its partner organization, the Presbyterian Education Board (PEB), operate in the Punjab region of Pakistan. She hesitantly accepted the invitation, then immediately fell in love. Of the many differences she noted between U.S. and Pakistani schools, one stood above the rest.

“Only one of the 14 schools offered music instruction and that teacher, though a very good musician, did not know how to read music notation,” Calhoun said.

The Presbyterian church has a long history in Pakistan. Nearly 150 years ago, the church sent missionaries to Pakistan, where they built schools. In the 1970s, the Pakistani government took ownership of the schools but failed to maintain them. In the late 1990s, the schools were returned to the PEB, which has since been working tirelessly to update infrastructure and enhance the curriculum.

Each summer, U.S. teachers are invited to share pedagogical skills with the PEB schools’ teachers. After her first visit, Calhoun was asked to teach and share her love of music.

“I made lesson plans and traveled to Pakistan in July 2016 and July 2017, and taught 18 elementary teachers from nine schools how to teach music at the primary level,” Calhoun said. “The teachers learned rhythmic and staff notation, and by the end of the week were able to read the music for the children’s songs and games which I taught them. We laughed, worked and played all week long.”

The impact was immeasurable.

“In the first year, even though the music was used just in the primary classes, the superintendent said she could already see a difference in how the students were acting, how the teachers were acting and responding. I’m helping people better themselves, and helping bring enjoyment through music.”

With three trips to Pakistan under her belt, Calhoun has no intention of slowing down. She intends to travel to the country twice in 2018, and perhaps again after that.

“I hope that over the next two years I’ll be able to train most of the elementary teachers so they’ll be able to have music lessons within their classrooms,” Calhoun said.

In addition to teaching fundamental music skills, Calhoun fundraised and purchased $1,600 worth of classroom instruments, which she singlehandedly carried halfway across the world in five sizeable suitcases. She’s also taught the schools’ principals to gain buy-in and understanding.

Though she was at first a bit nervous about her unanticipated adventure, Calhoun’s image of Pakistan, which was heavily influenced by media stereotypes, has completely changed. She calls Pakistan “the country of kindness and grace.”

“The people are very, very colorful. There’s lots of music playing. I see it in their culture, in their interaction with each other and it’s very caring. Even though sometimes their lives are chaotic, there’s still kindness and calm,” Calhoun said. “The people of Pakistan have enriched my life and given me a wealth of memories to share.”

And while Calhoun’s choice of retirement activity is somewhat out of the ordinary, she says it’s where she’s meant to be.

“People say, ‘Oh, gosh. I can’t believe you did that.’ But yet, in doing it, it doesn’t feel spectacular. It feels right.”

Opening Hearth and Home

Companionship, loyalty unconditional love are three of a thousand reasons why dogs are lauded as man’s best friend. While many pups spend their entire life with a single owner, others are not as fortunate. That’s where area animal shelters and generous volunteers come in.

Tara Pearson ’84 (criminal justice) stumbled into the dog fostering business 22 years ago. After taking in her sister’s beagle and adopting his half-brother shortly after, Pearson yearned to add another dog to the family. She heard about a dog in need of emergency fostering, called the number, and the rest was history.

To date, Pearson estimates she’s fostered about 285 dogs. That’s in addition to Pearson’s own—Blaze, Trigger, Ziva and Jazz. “They help me get through everything. It’s very rewarding,” Pearson said.

Pearson is president and treasurer of Adopt-A-Pet of Fargo-Moorhead, a nonprofit volunteer organization. Adopt-A-Pet has no shelter, and instead places animals in foster homes until permanent homes are located, no matter how long it takes.

“There are always dogs that need help,” Pearson said. “People have family emergencies, can’t care for them anymore or it’s just not working out.”

Like Pearson, Sandy Schob ’81 (physical education, health education) works with an all-volunteer, foster-based rescue organization— Minnesota Sheltie Rescue. She’s fostered several senior dogs, and like her first adoptee, hopes to find another therapy dog.

“She was amazing with little children and elderly people. Somehow, I fell into this group that did pet therapy work. We did a reading program and the dog was awesome with that. We also visited nursing homes and memory care units, and she was a natural,” Schob said.

After her therapy dog passed away, Schob adopted another from Minnesota Sheltie Rescue. And when an emergency foster home was needed for a senior dog, she, like Pearson, became hooked.

“At first, part of it was just trying to be helpful,” Schob said. “If someone doesn’t shelter this one, there’s no room for another dog that might need fostering.”

While volunteer organizations are always in need of monetary donations and supplies like food and toys, loving foster homes are just as important.

“We always need foster homes,” Pearson said. “That just means we can save more of them.”

Fostering can be quite the adventure. Pearson’s fosters have included three sets of bottle-fed puppies and another dog that delivered eight puppies while Pearson watched in awe. Schob is currently teaching her deaf foster basic sign language.

“Each dog that comes in has its different quirks, so it’s been fun working with the dogs, depending on what their quirk is, to try to help improve that before they get adopted,” Schob said.

When caring for a foster as your own, it can sometimes be difficult to let go, even once a loving, responsible home is found. Yet Pearson and Schob agree finding a forever home for these dogs is the most rewarding part of what they do.

“You have tears, but after you call and they’re doing OK and you see them, it just means you can save another one,” Pearson said. “There are so many out there that need homes.”

“I got addicted watching these first couple fosters go out to their new owners; watching how happy the people were. I get so excited and happy when I watch the looks on their faces when they really bond with their dog. It’s wonderful,” Schob said.


This story was first published in Moorhead Magazine, Spring 2018.

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