Academic Service-Learning Essay Contest
Course: Honors Philosophy
Professor: Father Robert Lauder
Prof. Kathryn Shaughnessy
Hello and welcome to the St. John’s University Libraries Podcast
Series. Today we present Academic Service Learning Essay Contest
winner Hannah Spencer, a freshman at St. John’s Queens campus. Ms.
Spencer reads here Academic Service Learning essay about working
patients and staff in at Chapin Nursing Home in Jamaica, Queens.
Thank you and we hope you enjoy the podcast.
I have been volunteering at the Chapin Nursing Home in Jamaica,
Queens for several months now. My volunteering experience has
given me much insight into compassionate care, fear, vulnerability
and suffering. On my first visit, I was impressed by the
warm, comfortable furnishings of the nursing home. This visit
was primarily a training session given by Kathy Ferrara, the
director of the volunteer program. Even in the short time I
spent at Chapin, I noticed how the residents were all treated with
respect and compassion. I looked forward to my first
I did not realize how difficult that visit was
going to be. Despite Kathy’s warning that most of the
residents have Alzheimer’s disease or some form of dementia, I went
into Chapin thinking I would be able to relate to the residents the
same way I do with other people. I brought a deck of cards
with me and even thought of some conversation starters.
I was immediately assigned to help out with the Sewing
Circle. As I have always been interested in sewing,
crocheting and knitting, I was looking forward to this
activity. When I walked into the room, six or seven
wheelchairs were pulled up to the tables. About half of the
women sat hunched over, staring vacantly into space. The
other ladies were talking to one of the staff members, Sharon,
about sewing in general. I joined in the conversation with
enthusiasm and started working on a tote bag pattern.
I soon realized that these ladies were not cognizant in the same
sense one generally assumes people to be. Our conversations
were circular. The women talked about the past as if it were
the present; however, recent events such as lunch and today’s
activities were lost memories. Most of the women were
physically incapable of tracing the tote-bag pattern. I found
it difficult to find something to talk about with the residents for
an extended period of time. We often ran out of things to
say; I often could not understand what they were trying to tell
me. Their daily life experiences were so different than
mine. I felt that we had very little in common.
The next few visits developed into a similar pattern.
During the first hour I spent at Chapin, I would help with the
Sewing Circle. After transporting residents back to their
rooms, I would assist the staff with the Stand-by-Me program.
This last activity was often the most difficult for me. It
was designed to give residents the freedom to move around at
will. Many of the residents lack the ability to speak
comprehensibly or have dementia that is quite progressed. One
woman, in particular, speaks nonsensical words persistently and
constantly. She is also fascinated by the name tags that all
staff members and volunteers wear. She likes to grab and yank
These actions made me feel uncomfortable. I had to learn
to be calm, but firm, in asking her to please be gentle and keep
her hands to herself. I learned to distract her with a toy
before my name tag became a problem.
The other residents who usually attend Stand-by-Me sessions like
to hold stuffed animals and baby dolls as well. They would
sometimes talk to the toys. It unnerved me at first to hear
grown people talking to baby dolls as if the toys were alive.
Even though the two hours I spent at Chapin went by quickly, I
often came home drained and exhausted.
It was not until my fourth visit that I became completely
comfortable at Chapin. I found out I could relate to most of
the residents in much simpler ways than I had first expected.
I discovered that smiles are a universal sign of joy, even to
people who do not appear to be cognizant of the world around
I also found that I could easily communicate with my physical
presence. By holding someone’s hand or arm as we walked
around the room, I could completely change the way we
related. Most residents would immediately smile and squeeze
my hand in affirmation of my gesture. Some people wanted to dance
with me, so we would waltz around the room.
After some time, I felt relaxed enough to be myself around the
staff and residents. I became comfortable acting silly and
entertaining the residents. I had been expecting them to
relate to me on my terms instead of the other way around. My
expectations had put a distance between us; once I came to this
understanding, I was able to communicate and connect with the
residents in a new way. Since I was unable to speak to the
people at Chapin as I do with most adults, I realized that a
mixture of respect and child-like silliness was the best
combination for communication.
One woman only speaks German now, and limits her conversations
to just one staff member. However, one day, that specific
staff member was absent for a few minutes during a Stand-by-Me
session. I went over and sat next to the elderly woman and
started talking about the fake flowers that were sitting on the
table. She became very excited, gesturing to the flowers,
then to me, and then to the other flowers scattered about the
room. She tightly held my hand while speaking fast in
German. She smiled and started laughing, which caused me to
start laughing as well. In that moment, we shared a communion
which transcended language differences. We communicated with
human touch, smiles, laughter and facial expressions.
Later, the staff told me that it was unusual for that woman to
be so cheerful and friendly with strangers. “She really likes
you,” they told me. I left Chapin that day with a sense of
energy, purpose and joy.
One of the main obstacles that I am in the process of overcoming
at Chapin is some level of fear. I am uncomfortable with the
unfamiliar. Many of the residents at Chapin resemble
children. Their everyday existence is completely dependent on
the staff and volunteers. The residents are at their most
vulnerable; many are physically and mentally handicapped.
Their daily life is completely different from my own.
Since moving to St. John’s University this fall, new freedoms
have opened up to me. My life is full of classes, on-campus
activities, friends and family. I make my own decisions
concerning what, when, and where I will do an activity each
The irony of my position has since become obvious to me. I
am helping men and women who are three, four and even five times my
age, to accomplish basic tasks. It is difficult to watch some
residents struggle to talk, eat, or drink. These activities
are fundamental to our existence, so we take them for
granted. The very actions we learned first as children are
often the last ones taken from us during a period of suffering.
The residents consider me a baby. One woman held my
hand for 20 minutes as she imparted some important advice to
me. “Focus on your studies,” she told me. “Don’t get a
boyfriend just yet. Do not worry about not knowing what you
want to do with your future. There will be plenty of time for
that later.” And then she smiled and looked deeply into my
eyes. I felt so blessed to be a part of her story and for her
to be a part of mine.
At Chapin, I was given the opportunity to learn how to listen,
communicate and relate to people in an entirely new way. I
transcended my comfort levels and found a joy and strength I did
not know existed. I found a ministry of smiles and joyful
giving. The residents ministered to me.
Prof. Kathryn Shaughnessy
That concludes this podcast. Bumper music is “This Life” by D5L
courtesy of Podsafe Audio. We thank Hannah Spencer and the Office
of Academic Service Learning for sharing their time, experience and
talent for the greater community.