Debbie Keys of Jim Thorpe, has been an active volunteer with Campus Ministry during her first three years at Misericordia University.

She can often be seen having lunch or walking around campus with her "little sister," a local girl she is mentoring through the region's Big Brothers Big Sisters program. Those early experiences, Keys says, prepared her to expand her volunteer efforts and take her work abroad.

"I do a lot of volunteer work on campus," says Keys, an occupational therapy major. "I always had a passion for helping people. They (campus ministry) provide a lot of opportunities to do that, especially around the area. But that lead me to do Jamaica."

Misericordia University students enrolled in the service-learning course, "Theology and the Church," traveled to Jamaica with Campus Ministry for the eighth straight year. Students and chaperones volunteered in January during winter break, where they provided hard work and mentored young children.

Campus Ministry spearheads service-learning trips because students can learn about themselves as well as the culture they are immersed in, says its director Christine Somers, D.Min., M.S.W.

"Students have come back more energized to do service in the local community," says Dr. Somers, who has been involved in the Jamaican program since it was established. "It has also strengthened the bonds of the students who went and experienced Jamaica."

During the trip, the Rev. Patrick Mwangi had students stay with him at St. Joseph Catholic Church. They returned his hospitality by painting the church and doing routine maintenance. The chores assist the parish community in maintaining the church, while building a sense of community between Misericordia students and people from the island nation.

Another goal of the trip was to help the elderly. Missionaries of Charity is a nursing home housed in a former warehouse in Balasclaza, Jamaica, and is home to many aged residents, many of whom were left behind by adult children who sought better lives in more prosperous countries. At the home, volunteers help residents with basic hygiene, including shaving and clipping nails. Keys found that most of the residents just wanted someone to talk to.

"We basically just talked to them," says Keys. "Just that social interaction is all they needed to make their day."

Misericordia's pilgrims of mercy also helped children by visiting and donating their time at St. John Bosco, a home for boys between the ages of 3-16. The child-care institution is owned and operated by the Sisters of Mercy, who also founded Misericordia University. The volunteers play cards and sports with the children. Misericordia volunteers gave the boys the attention they are not used to getting due to the number of boys that attend the school.

"Again that was more of an interaction and being there for them, because there is about a hundred boys there and they don't get any interaction at all," adds Keys. "It was nice for them just to talk to us and play cards and soccer."

Reflecting back on her experience, Keys believes she truly really benefited from it and hopes to continue her volunteer efforts well into the future.

"I learned a lot about myself. I really grew,'' Keys acknowledges. "Hopefully, what I learned in Jamaica I can take back here and help the community. Also, it was amazing to see their faces because it was all about giving your time. People can donate food and clothes, but they really just want that interaction with other people."

In addition to Keys, another student from the TIMES NEWS coverage area, Amy Burke of Walnutport, also went to volunteer in Jamaica.