Taylor Psychology Students Blessed as They Serve Muncie Community

By Jim Garringer Published: May 24, 2012

It could best be described as bittersweet – there were no goodbyes, only farewells. Still, amid the sounds of laughter and children squealing with joy as their college-age friends pushed them higher and higher on the swings, there was a sense of loss that at least a few of the students and their elementary school friends felt.

It was the final day of a yearlong project for four groups of Taylor University students who had traveled from the comparative safety and comfort of the campus they knew to the uncertainties of this neighborhood on Muncie’s northeast side. The neighborhood, one of the city’s poorer ones, was filled with houses that originally were built to house workers at a nearby steel factory. The steel factory has long since closed, but the people remain.

Some of these Taylor students had experienced little if any interaction with people of different racial, socioeconomic or ethnic backgrounds before Taylor psychology professor Dr. Diane Dungan began taking groups of students to the nearby Precious Hearts Developmental Center. But any initial awkwardness soon faded away.

Dungan says the class was a practicum experience for her students – Psychology 393. Four groups of Taylor students, two per semester, alternated between Mondays and Wednesdays and Tuesdays and Thursdays. “When I set this up I really had in my heart a desire to have students see diversity in local areas and the richness of cultures,” Dungan explains. “It is a poor neighborhood that could be considered ‘inner city.’ But there is a richness of community there and our students have been so tremendously blessed to be part of that community.”

The standard format for each day was: set up at 2:30, children’s arrival at 3:00, homework until 3:30 or later, and then games until 5:00. There was no homework today – just food, games, rides on the merry-go-round, and turns in the swings when these children were launched so high it seemed as if they could touch the clouds.

Some of the students admitted they didn’t know what to expect going into the experience, but they soon found that children are children, whatever the address or other superficial differences there might be. Behavioral issues? Some. But then again, when you have a group of 32 schoolchildren in close proximity with one another, wouldn’t that be expected?

The main thing that junior psychology major Whitney Sweet noticed was how easily the children grew discouraged:

“If they didn’t know the answer (to a homework problem) they would quit. They would pout; they would cry. If they got chosen for tag they would stop,” Sweet says. “That was a big thing we worked on – working through things and not quitting.”

Sweet, a member of Taylor’s volleyball team, was one of the Taylor students who seemed to be in the center of a number of different fun events. She pushed one little girl on the swing; she cradled another who was unhappy about something; she held another child who cut her head on the merry-go-round.

“They definitely want to be loved,” she says. “Some of the children, if they know you are leaving, will pull away while some will become more attached. One of the girls I worked with did not want me to work with her on the last day.”

A young boy named Cameron who has struggled in school captured the heart of Kurt Miller, a Taylor senior psychology major. Cameron deals with speech and learning challenges that caused him to feel isolated from some of the other children. And for Miller, there was an added dimension to the relationship that made it all the more meaningful.

“When I was younger I couldn’t say my R’s … I used to have more of a stutter,” Miller relates. “But after working with Cameron and seeing how he’s changing who he wants to be, it has really broadened my desire to go into some sort of language pathology.”

“At first he was really quiet and didn’t want to talk,” Miller says. “But getting to know him helped me understand that God has given everyone a way to communicate. God really helped me understand that just because Cameron may not speak normally, it doesn’t mean he doesn’t have good things to say.”

“Just him knowing that all of us came here and wanted to hang out with him really just opened him up,” Miller continues. “Rather than people using him or making fun of him, there were older people who came in and just really enjoyed him. That was really cool … I want him to be completely comfortable with who he is.”

“I went into it with an open mind,” Sweet says. “It was comfortable to be there. They welcomed us with open arms.”

Dungan said this past year was the first of several planned years of working with the same children. “We wanted to commit to several years of working with the same group of kids, to help build life skills that will enable them to make different career choices,” she says. “We plan to have the students at Taylor for a day next year so they can experience what college is like. It will take a longer period of time than just a couple of semesters so we are planning on being involved for several years.”