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Connecting Students to the Greater Community
Syeisha Byrd G’12 is the director of the Office of Engagement Programs at Hendricks Chapel. In that role, she connects Syracuse University students with service opportunities in the greater community. She will be honored as a 2019 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Unsung Hero at the MLK Celebration in the Dome on Sunday evening. Below, she talks about her work and the importance of community service.
Q: You are a native of Syracuse and have spent many years working in the community, including 16 years with the Boys & Girls Club. What inspired you to follow a career path of service to your community?
A: As a young child, I watched how my mom and dad were always willing to give to others. My father, being one of the only dads in the neighborhood, became the neighborhood father. He gave advice and shared his love with all the children on our block. My mother always made sure to cook enough food every night for dinner just in case someone came by hungry. They were my first teachers. They taught me how to be kind and caring, how to love unconditionally and how much change I could make just by helping one person. My parents also gave me the gift of a Boys & Girls Club membership card, where I built so many meaningful relationships with my peers, the club staff and dozens of mentors.
Q: The Northside Learning Center, Near West Side Initiative, Rescue Mission, Meals on Wheels, Syracuse Behavioral Health Care, the Center for New Americans and Home Headquarters are just some of the organizations you have been involved with in the greater community. Through this work, what kinds of needs have you seen and experienced?
A: The city of Syracuse has an overwhelming amount of wonderful organizations and programs which offer services to help combat such issues as homelessness, poverty, addiction, refugee resettlement, literacy, economic development and housing and youth development, just to name a few. The need in Syracuse is for us all to come together and collaborate, and not create more programming. I believe we are stronger when we bring people with different experiences to one table and build upon what already exists.
Most of my career, I have worked in youth development. I know that children grow up to be adults one day, eventually becoming our doctors, teachers and lawyers—but I also know if they don’t have someone encouraging them and nurturing them, those same children can just as well become our drug dealers and criminals. Our youth need more mentors and role models. They are in need of positive reinforcement and guidance. We have to invite them to the table and listen to their ideas and encourage them to speak up and get involved.
Q: Please talk about the Office of Engagement Programs in Hendricks Chapel. What are some examples of programs that the office sponsors?
A: The Office of Engagement Programs provides short-term and long-term volunteer opportunities for Syracuse University and SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry students to engage in and build sustainable relationships. There are two signature programs, Young Scholars and Empathy Matters.
Young Scholars is a mentoring program for middle- and high-school youth. The program serves both Native-born and refugee youth. Syracuse University students work as mentors, helping the youth with homework, Regents preparation, resumes, job applications and life skills. Empathy Matters was written and designed by SU and ESF students. It is a 10-week program held currently at HW Smith School to teach second graders how to be more caring, empathic and respectful towards all. They learn leadership skills, yoga and meditation, and are able to practice those skills at the end of the semester at The Nottingham senior living community. Crochet, Knit and Conversation is a program I developed because I love to crochet and I love to bring people together. Students, staff and faculty are invited to sit, learn to crochet or knit, and build relationships with one another. All items created by the group are donated to the Hendricks Chapel Food Pantry and the local community. We collaborate with the Office of Veteran and Military Affairs to host a pre-orientation program for new incoming veteran students. The Office of Engagement Programs also offers one-time opportunities working with the University United Methodist Church, the Veterans Administration hospital, the Rescue Mission, Meals on Wheels and several other organizations in the Syracuse community.
Q: In your work you have come in contact with a lot of different people and different situations in the community. Has there been one or two that have particularly left an impression on you and been really illustrative of why community service is so critical?
A: I thrive on meeting new people and building new relationships. I try to meet at least two new people every day. People are so interesting. Everyone has their own unique story.
I remember taking a group of SU students downtown to volunteer at the Samaritan Center. As we took a break for lunch, we went outside to sit on the benches. A woman walked up to me and I stood up to greet her with a hug. We talked for a while, shared a few students, and she went on her way. One of the students in my group walked up to me and asked why was I so nice to a person that was obviously a drug user.
It was a teaching moment for me, and a learning moment for the student. I told her how that woman was someone that has been in my life since I was a baby, and that every time I encountered her she always showed care and concern for me. She always took time to talk to me and educate me. I explained that all people are worthy of dignity and our respect. Each and every encounter you have with a person should lift them up and have the potential to make a difference in their life.
Serving others is critical, for both the person being helped and the person helping.
Q: What advice would you give to students about the importance of community service as part of a well-rounded University education and campus experience? How can students become involved in the various outreach opportunities available on campus and in the community?
A: There is a wealth of knowledge in the Syracuse community and there is even more knowledge to be shared at the University. Our students are filled with creativity and new ideas. I tell students all the time, as long as you are a student, you are a resident of the city of Syracuse and you have an opportunity to make a difference. You have the opportunity to make a positive change in a least one person’s life. I encourage every student to ignore bad rumors they may hear about our city and to reach out to the Office of Engagement Programs, the Mary Ann Shaw Center for Public and Community Service or Community Engagement, or join a service group such as Orange Seeds or Alpha Phi Omega, and get involved in the Syracuse community. Lastly, I would encourage students to think about their major and their passion to find opportunities to use their skills to help strengthen the Syracuse community.
Q: You will receive a Martin Luther King Jr. Unsung Hero Award at the MLK Celebration in the Carrier Dome on Jan. 27. How can we all strive to be a part of Dr. King’s “beloved community?”
A: First, take time to stop and not just hear people but genuinely listen to the stories that they share. I have learned so much from others by taking the time to listen. I may not be able to offer assistance in that moment but eventually I end up circling back to that person with an opportunity to connect them too.
Second, I always try my hardest to lead by example, even when you think no one is watching, someone always is. And third, I always work towards being the change I want to see. I advocate for what I feel is right in the world and push back when things are not right. I stand up at all times for what I hold true to myself. Dr. King led by example, he stood up for those that could not stand up for themselves, and that is exactly what I will continue to do.
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