Patrick Crump was in the middle of moving from Dallas to San Antonio for his new post as CEO of Morningside Ministries when he got a phone call. On the other end was Kercida McClain, executive director of the local chapter of Project Transformation, a leadership development and service organization. McClain asked Crump if he would be willing to house 34 summer interns in the former hospice wing of one of his assisted living facilities.

“Sounds like trouble, right?” Crump told the Rivard Report, recalling the conversation.

The college students would be spending their days hosting literacy camps for kids in the surrounding neighborhoods. At night, they needed somewhere to sleep, and McClain was looking to do something a little more radical than putting them in a typical dorm environment. She wanted an immersive summer of “intentional living” for the interns, not a service project bookended with socializing-as-usual.

“This was my dream when I said I would take this job,” McClain said.

Crump’s wife is an elementary school teacher, so the mission of Project Transformation sold him on McClain’s proposition. “This is too good. Who could say no?” Crump said.

The arrangement didn’t worry Crump on behalf of his residents. While some might be concerned about noisy college students keeping late hours, Crump saw it as a win.

“One thing we know, generally speaking, is that any time you bring the generations together, it’s good for both,” Crump said. So far, he said, that has proven true with Project Transformation. The students have been respectful and the residents have been delighted.

Project Transformation is a national ministry of the United Methodist Church that brings college students to communities where they can grow through service. Each chapter is run independently so that it can serve the particular needs of the area. The local chapter of Project Transformation is a ministry of the Rio Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church.

Students came from Harvard University, Colorado State University, San Antonio College, and other institutions. The 34 interns hail from across the country, but for the summer they are calling San Antonio home and treating the elementary students at the camps as their own.

“Interacting with these kids, I have to put them above myself,” said intern Jetta Stokes, who studies business communication at Florida A&M University.

Stokes also wanted to spend her summer serving others, a core tenant of her Christian faith. Even on days when she is preoccupied or tired, “you still have to get into their lives,” Stokes said.

The interns run the Project Transformation literacy camp from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., leading games and crafts and providing meals and snacks. The reading portion of the camp is staffed by volunteers from churches, high schools, and San Antonio Youth Literacy. The camp is designed to track campers’ reading progress and keep them moving forward over the summer.

Project Transformation reading partners and children walk towards the bookshelves to choose books to read at Laurel Heights United Methodist Church.
Project Transformation reading partners and children walk towards the bookshelves to choose books to read at Laurel Heights United Methodist Church. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Project Transformation conducts background checks on the community volunteers and provides initial orientation. Trinity University biology major Haley McFadden manages the volunteers at the Laurel Heights United Methodist Church site. 

Once the day is over, the interns return to Morningside Ministries, where they spend time with residents. They play bingo and participate in whatever activities the residents have going for the evening. Church groups provide most of the meals for the college students, but occasionally the interns eat with the residents.

“It’s invigorating to meet these young people,” Morningside Ministries resident Eldon Webb said. Most residents have lost someone and spent some time grieving. However, once time has passed, Webb said, “we know how to have a good time.”

In addition to the conversation and social interaction, the interns provide another valuable service, McClain said. The interns are regularly enlisted to help residents fix their iPads.

Victor Edwards is a sculpture and illustration student at Kentucky College of Art and Design at Spalding University. Being around kids during the day and the Morningside Ministries residents at night has helped him see people as they are, not as part of an age bracket. He sees the same spunk, or shyness, or kindness in the kids as he does in the older people. Personality, he says, appears to transcend age.

Before they took up residence, McClain had the students participate in exercises to demonstrate how aging compromises physical function. She wanted them to encounter a range of residents, from those in the independent living facility, to those nearing the end of long illnesses.

“I want my kids to experience what dementia is and how cruel that is,” McClain said, “but I also want them to meet someone who’s just older and still going strong.”

Morningside Ministeries residents love teaching the students about the past. One resident pointed out that the interns didn’t know what burlesque was, drawing giggles from those sharing her table.

“Their stories are great,” intern Emily Stewart said.

One resident fought in World War II, one couple has been married for 73 years, and each has decades of perspective to share with students at the beginning of their adult journey. The interns, in exchange, provide an encouraging perspective to the residents, whose interaction with youth is usually limited to harrowing news stories.

“You hear about all these youngsters who have a lot of problems,” resident Jo Fletcher said. “You don’t hear about these who are out doing good things.” 

These students provide a refreshing antidote to those stories. The residents are cheered by the students’ commitment to service, and their seriousness about the world they live in, including its problems, resident Ellen Evans said.

“We know we are leaving the future in good hands,” she said.

Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog, FreeBekah.com, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.