Wilson in snow

Exam week is almost over. Preparations are underway for December commencement on Saturday. Students are packing up to travel home, and others are eager to graduate. Soon the campus will be quiet and empty.

Two snowfalls early in the week covered the valley and the campus, lending a little excitement for students who had never seen snow, like freshman Alyssa Berman (’17) from Florida. Her roommates rousted her out of bed, eager to see her reaction to her first snowfall. For others, the snow hinted at the holiday festivities coming and of the opportunity to see friends and family, and to rest for a few weeks.  For some, like Joe Balsamo (’15) and Chris Bell (’15), the snow was a reminder that Snowshoe or other snow-covered slopes were waiting for them at the semester’s end. For others, like Emily Thyroff (’14) from Rochester, N.Y., the snow — and especially the cold — just felt like home.

This is wrap up week. Professors are tallying final grades, and the roads leading away from campus are filled with departing students, going home from “home.”

For this blogger, this will be the last post of 2013. Already, though, I’m excited about some stories I’ll be sharing next year — like Emily’s trip to Australia and Joe’s research and Alyssa’s (and her friend Marissa’s) experiences with the National Center for Women and Information Technology. And I’ll be telling you about one young alum who was in the Phillippines during the recent devastating Hurricane Yolanda (Yes, Yolanda.)  All stories are about positive change. The best part of working on a university campus is the endless supply of interesting, energizing, engaging people. And this blog is theirs.

As we wind up the year, JMU’s Frank Doherty, director of Institutional Research and photographer, captured the snowy campus this week. Looking south from Burruss Hall, Keezell, Wilson and Maury Halls with their distinctive cupolas stand above the sparkle of lights on the quad.

It was too beautiful a photograph not to share……

Photograph by Frank Doherty

Photograph by Frank Doherty

Not home for Christmas

Buddy the elf holding a snow globe containing JMU's Wilson HallImagine you’re 6-years-old, and it’s Christmas morning. You wake up in a house not your own, surrounded by people you barely know. That could be the plight of some 198 children in Harrisonburg and Rockingham County who will not be at home on Christmas morning this year. They will be somewhere else.

They are in foster care. And every year, there are more of them. In 2008, 65 area children entered foster care and this year, so far, there are 99.

Foster care is a stopgap. Children arrive in foster homes for various reasons — dangerous domestic situations, parents unable to provide care and medical or legal situations. Each child is unique. But they share one characteristic: They are in transition.

Foster care programs, like the one run by Harrisonburg-Rockingham Department of Social Services — and supported by dozens of foster parents in the community — provide stability in the lives of children who have experienced upheaval and who are often very vulnerable.

Their lives, quite frankly, are far removed from the average college student. Still, a group of students at JMU is paying attention to these children, amidst the hubbub of their own crazy lives, filled with classes and exams and friendships and activities.

Thirteen years ago, a group of JMU Student Ambassadors (student leaders who conduct campus tours and support the university in multiple ways) organized a concert to raise money for our area’s foster children. That year, the concert held in Grafton-Stovall Theatre raised $600. It was dubbed Operation Santa Claus.

The concert was a way to reach out to area children and to enrich their lives a little. It was a chance for some of our community’s most privileged — college students — to touch and perhaps change the lives of some of the most vulnerable. In the intervening years, Operation Santa Claus has become a tradition — one of change and one of engagement. Last year’s concert raised $4,300 for local foster children.

Next Monday, Dec. 3, is the 2012 Operation Santa Claus concert. It will begin at 7:30 p.m. in Wilson Hall. The concert will feature 14 performing groups, which by itself means OSC reaches even deeper into the Madison Community. The groups performing are: The Madison Project, Into Hymn, Madison Dance, Bluestones, Lexie Hayden, Overtones, Mozaic Dance, Note-oriety, Low Key, New and Improv’d, Lad in a Battle, Exit 245, the Dukettes and Exit 247 B-Flat Project.

Co-chairs of Operation Santa Claus, Rachel Ostroff (’13), a communication studies major from Trumbull, Conn., and Mike Ferrante (’15), a marketing major from Ramsey, N.J., are hoping for a big turnout again this year.

Operation Santa Claus, though, is far more than a single yearly concert. Each month the group has planned and carried out an activity with and for the children, Rachel says. Students participated in a picnic for foster and adoptive families in September where they shared cookies and flag football and soccer. “It is a way to interact with the kids,” she says. “It’s a way to interact with the community.”

In October, the Operation Santa Claus ambassadors shared a meal with the children and area social workers in D-Hall. They’ve planned a family movie night with everyone’s favorite giant ELF, Buddy, and sold CandyCaneGrams. They’ve also purchased Christmas gifts for 33 foster children. “For some, it’s the only gift they’ll receive,” Rachel says.

The Santa team is also hosting a gingerbread house building contest. Campus groups can buy, build and decorate the confections. Then the best will be chosen through “votes” — contributions to buckets in front of each house.

All the proceeds from all the activities, Rachel says, go to these most vulnerable children.

Rachel is passionate about Operation Santa Claus. It’s not even about Christmas, she says. “It’s about the meaning behind it.”

It’s about working and giving and planning and reaching out and lifting up and engaging some very special members of our community. It’s about changing lives.

The Buddy the Elf illustration with Wilson Hall so cleverly enclosed in the snow globe was created by Kara Zawacki (’14) from Westminster, Md.

Josh Blue, landmines, concerts and invisible children

If you want to experience a good dose of positive, action-oriented change, the kind that JMU does so well, here’s your chance. This feels like a season to celebrate “Be the Change,” and the agenda for these first weeks of spring certainly is showcasing exemplary change.

Stand-up comic Josh Blue

I heard from Be the Changer Matt Trybus who works with JMU’s Disability Services that this week marks Disability Awareness Week. Starting today the week will feature amazing stories that will inspire and challenge you. Headlining the week is Josh Blue, comedian and winner of television’s Last Comic Standing. He will perform in Wilson Hall tonight. Josh, who has cerebral palsy, puts his disability in a new light by demonstrating with his own special brand of humor how disability is only a different route to ability.

Josh is only the beginning of an exciting week. Later in the week a powerful video about JMU student Trisha Smith, a brain aneurysm survivor, will be screened. The Appointment was submitted to the American Academy of Neurology Foundation for viewing at their film festival. The screening will be followed by a panel discussion.

That’s just a sampling. There’s much more going on. You can find out everything happening during Disability Awareness Week on the JMU website and here: http://www.jmu.edu/ods/awarenessWeek.shtml

Next week Be the Changer Todd Shifflett is planning his spring concert. It is scheduled for Thursday, April 7 at 7 p.m. in Wampler Hall. Todd takes care of Wampler Residence Hall, and his concerts are his way of giving back some of the kindness he receives from students. Read more about Todd here  http://www.jmu.edu/bethechange/people/shifflett.shtml and on this blog.

Also next week Post-Conflict Recovery Week begins with a presentation by Ken Rutherford, a landmine survivor and global advocate for the Nobel Peace Price-winning work of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. Rutherford is director of the Center for International Stabilization and Recovery and a professor of political science at JMU. The talk will take place in Miller Hall.

Logo of the International Campaign to Ban Land...

Image via Wikipedia

To learn more about Ken Rutherford, check out Dan Armstrong’s story here: http://web.jmu.edu/mediarel/PubAffairs-asp/PR-thisRelease.asp?AutoID=1313

And that’s still not all.

Tomorrow, the Invisible Children bus will be at the Convo. You won’t want to miss this inspirational program. According to JMU’s Public Affairs: Invisible Children’s newest effort, The Congo Tour, kicks off this spring. As a part of the tour, the film “Tony” will be screened March 29, 7:30 p.m. in the Convocation Center. Invisible Children is expanding its efforts from Uganda to the Congo and this film documents their efforts to rescue and educate children and rebuild in central-eastern Africa. JMU plans to screen other Invisible Children films in April.

And the best part — “Tony” will be there.

Don’t miss a minute of these opportunities to see change in action.


Take one last longing look…..

While I was scrolling through JMU’s Flickr feed looking for a new background photo for the blog, I came across this stunning photo by longtime JMU photographer Diane Elliot (’00). Recent graduates will recognize Newman Lake with the Estes Fountain near its center. This scene, however, has changed — and will change even more over the summer. Plans are in the works for Newman Lake to be reduced by more than half in order to meet state guidelines of the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation.

In the event of flooding, the current culvert system that empties into Siebert’s Creek and runs south parallel to Interstate 81 has been deemed inadequate under current guidelines, meaning it might someday overflow and restrict traffic on I-81. Reducing the size of the lake, the James Madison University Board of Visitors determined, is the most economical and practical solution.

Already, however, from the vantage of Diane’s photograph, the scene is different. The distinctive Wilson Hall cupola is now obscurred by the second stage of the expansion of Bridgeforth Stadium, altering the JMU skyline. Soon trees will begin to bloom; shortly thereafter the lake will shrink.

Newman Lake, named for the family who first owned and sold the land to build the Normal and Industrial School at Harrisonburg, has made a picturesque first impression on students for decades. It has also served as an attractive entrance to the city, as traffic on I-81 is directed to the historic downtown Harrisonburg via Port Republic Road. Many people remember ice skating on Newman Lake before skating was banned and the lake was dredged in the 1970s. Others remember what the scene looked like before any buildings grew up on its banks. No doubt thousands of students made their own memories gazing over the lake. What do you remember?

Although Newman Lake is shrinking, thankfully it is not disappearing, and while JMU’s skyline is changing, it is also being readied to embrace the future. While some change can leave us nostalgic, on a college campus change almost always represents a bold move into the future where new memories, new explorations, new breakthroughs and new challenges are welcomed.

So take one last look and get ready to see what’s next.

Read more about the Newman Lake transformation in a Breeze feature by JMU Be the Change intern Tyler McAvoy (’12). Here’s the link: http://www.breezejmu.org/news/article_fe2dbc88-2438-11e0-8641-00127992bc8b.html

You can also read former Centennial Director Fred Hilton’s (’96M) story about Newman Lake’s picturesque history on the centennial Web site: http://www.jmu.edu/centennialcelebration/newman_lake.shtml

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