Students and alumni of Bluefield College share their love of service in places near and far
Bluefield College is a small college with a big message for its students: go out and change the world.
This small-town, Baptist college preaches compassion while urging students to set their sights on the global community and the ways they can make it better. A commitment to academic excellence and an emphasis on the liberal arts are at the core of the curriculum, but what Bluefield cares most about are the contributions its students make to the world at large—both while they are students and once they leave the campus.
The Bluefield family is home to plenty of service-minded students and alumni. In this issue of Engage, we take a look at three of those family members—each one at a different phase of her service career—and examine how each one is working to make big changes in the world.
Gabriele Morgan, a Bluefield College ______, had a life-changing experience last summer, when she went to Prague for a two-week, intensive course through the Sullivan Foundation’s Service and Social Entrepreneurship Program. Now, she’s taking what she learned in the Czech Republic and using it to teach others back at home.
“My time in Prague was one of the greatest experiences I’ve had so far,” says Morgan. “I’m incredibly grateful to have had the opportunity both to go and learn there, and to come back and share what I learned with my school.”
The program she was a part of focused on women in leadership and was put on by the Leadership exCHANGE organization, which partners with Sullivan and other non-profit organizations to provide educational experiences to young people, with the goal of equipping them with the tools they need to become active and responsible citizens in the global community.
Morgan returned from her trip invigorated and filled with thoughts about how the power of community has the potential to affect social change. She wanted to share those thoughts with her peers at Bluefield, so she put together a presentation to share her experiences.
“The presentation was on the power of community to bring about change,” she says. “I spoke about how the group in Prague’s coming together as a tight-knit community was instrumental in growing as individuals and doing the work we were assigned.”
Morgan paired that personal experience with some larger-scale examples she learned about during her course of study.
“I learned about the various groups in Prague who used those very ideas—from the Velvet Revolution to the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace, which we watched a documentary on during one of our class sessions,” says Morgan. “I related these principles to what I had been learning in my classes at Bluefield about group formation and dynamics, as I was able to use a lot of what I learned in Prague in the classroom this past semester.”
Brittany Garton, a 2011 Bluefield College graduate, is not timid when it comes to commitment. She has dedicated herself to a life of service to an organization called Project Ruth and its Ruth School in Bucharest, Romania. Garton felt her calling early in life and nurtured it while a student at BC.
“My calling to the Roma people and to Project Ruth was a gradual process,” says Garton. “My family and church has always been very missions oriented, so I guess it was just a life process of a calling.”
Garton began working with Project Ruth while just a freshman in high school as a volunteer during the summers, organizing Vacation Bible Schools in as many as 10 Roma villages each year. The mission of the non-profit organization is to break the cycle of poverty and bring hope to the Roma (Gypsy) community in Bucharest. Garton found inspiration in that mission right away.
Among the programs of Project Ruth is the Naomi Center—which provides professional counseling, career development, and job training to Roma women to help them better their lives—and The Gypsy Smith School, which offers basic theological education to Roma church leaders who wish to serve as pastors, music ministers, youth ministers, and missionaries.
The program Garton identified with the most, however, is the Ruth School, the largest ministry of Project Ruth. A fully accredited private school, it offers education to children in kindergarten through eighth grade, nearly all of whom come from a Roma background.
“Roma children face high levels of discrimination in public schools because of their ethnic background,” says Garton, “which often results in high dropout rates and poor academic outcomes. And, attending state schools is cost-prohibitive for many Roma families. The Ruth School seeks to eliminate as many barriers to learning as possible for these economically disadvantaged children, providing them with the opportunity for a brighter future.”
With an annual enrollment of more than 200 students, the Ruth School provides not only education to the Roma children, but also school supplies, daily meals, basic medical care, clothing and shoes, tutoring, and extracurricular activities. Garton’s responsibilities for the Ruth School include organizing and hosting volunteer or mission teams who come to support their efforts. She’s also in charge of fundraising, database management, publicity, and coordinating the school’s student sponsorship program. In addition, she helps with weekly chapel services and after-school enrichment programs.
Garton recalls one child she came to know very well—a boy named Robert, who showed great promise as a student through second grade but then suddenly stopped coming to school. Despite her visits to the home and pleading for him to return, Robert remained absent.
“That winter, I received a phone call from my pastor letting me know that Robert’s mom had lost her battle with cancer,” says Garton. “It hit me like a ton of bricks. I had no idea she was ill. He hadn’t been skipping school to play with a half-deflated soccer ball in the streets. He was the end of life caregiver for his mother as his older brother was handling his grief with drugs and alcohol, and his father was working extra shifts as a street sweeper to pay the medical bills.”
Robert eventually returned to the Ruth School, and thanks to Garton’s efforts to wake, feed, and walk him to school in the mornings and work with him on make-up studies in the afternoons, he is back on track to gaining his education and overcoming his obstacles.
“His dad once told me that he had shared with his co-workers how this American girl was coming and doing all this for his son, because she was from the church down the street,” says Garton. “To me, that was the greatest testimony of what my calling is here.”
When asked about her future, particularly how long she plans to stay in Romania, Garton does not mince words.
“Until God or one of my bosses kicks me out,” she says. “My long-term plan is to continue serving in as many ways as possible. Bucharest is really my home now.”
Bluefield College alumna Frances “Frannie” Baxter Minton grew up accompanying her father, a family physician, on house calls to patients in Buchanan County, Virginia. She saw firsthand how the need for health and dental care often surpassed the supply. She also watched as the number of health care providers dwindled in southwest Virginia, while the sum of patients who could not afford care continued to climb.
“I saw how hard it was for people to go over the mountain, as they say, to get health care,” says Minton about the trek Buchanan County residents would have to take over Shorts Gap Mountain to find doctors and dentists. “That’s why I made it my mission to bring the care to Buchanan County.”
And that, she did. Instilled with her family’s passion for service and Christian care and love, Minton became a nurse and began a 34-year career in Buchanan County.
She also worked in hospital, home health, hospice care, and industrial medicine before founding the Baxter Foundation, which secured more than $450,000 in grants during its first year alone for a new obstetrics wing at Buchanan General Hospital and improving health care for all of Buchanan County. Eventually, she would create Appalachian Family Care in Grundy, Virginia, the first retail care clinic in southwest Virginia that submits billing to insurance. Open since 2006, the clinic has served more than 9,000 patients.
As if that weren’t enough, Minton decided to bring Remote Access Medical (RAM) care to Buchanan County to address the profound need for access to dental, optical and medical services for low-income, uninsured, and underserved residents.
“I grew up in a family of love. We were raised to give, and I want to give,” she says. “I saw how the churches were inundated with requests for help from people, especially dental care. So, I thought if we could have something like this once a year, we might not be able to do everything, but we could at least make a dent.”
RAM hosts one clinic a year in Buchanan County. Using portable dental, optical and medical equipment, volunteer dentists and hygienists offer cleanings, x-rays, fillings, and other oral care remedies.
In its 12th consecutive year, RAM and Mission of Mercy have provided an estimated $6 million in free dental care to residents in southwest Virginia, eastern Kentucky, eastern Tennessee, and southern West Virginia. Even after 12 years of service, however, the need is greater than ever before—the number of patients is rising each year. More than 1,000 patients came seeking care this year. So many, Minton says, that they couldn’t treat them all.
“We have people standing in line as early as 5 a.m. on a Friday morning for care they may not even get until Saturday,” she says. “The lines are sometimes 300 yards long. They just need help, but the sad part is we still have to turn people away. That breaks my heart. We could do one of these every week and would still have patients to serve in dental.”
Minton says they couldn’t do the work they do without the generosity of the oral health care providers who donate their time, energy, and resources for two days that sometimes last as long as 14 hours each. Starting with just a handful, the group of volunteer dentists has now grown to about 50, with another 50-75 dental students joining the cause. Soon that number will include students from the Bluefield College School of Dental Medicine.
Now, at age 62, battling breast cancer in the midst of her tireless work and service, some might say the dental mission may soon be over—not Minton.
“The need is still there,” she says. “A lot of people go out of the area for missions, but I do it right in my own back yard. You have to keep on keeping on. As long as I’m able, that’s what I’ll do.”