Working for the weekend

Sullivan retreat weekends help students and facilitators find success in Service to Others

After four years, the Sullivan Foundation’s  Service & Social Entrepreneurship Program’s retreat weekends have emerged as a signature event for the foundation. The idea for the program developed organically as the foundation became aware of the need to foster the development and mentorship of students.

“We realized that our awards and scholarship programs  were passively  recognizing exceptional students and community members committed to the service of others, but there really wasn’t anything out there to help them develop their skills and ideas in solving social problems,” says Steve McDavid, Sullivan Foundation President. “We decided it was time to get actively engaged in the development of our students and campuses, in hopes of generating engines for change.

Erin Harvell, Jeron Crawford, Daniel Prohaska, and Professor Brad Smith represented Erskine College at the 2013 Fall Retreat

Since their inception in 2010, the retreat weekends have brought together over 350 students and faculty from 45 schools to work with social-minded educators, students, and entrepreneurs, as well as facilitators from across the country on a variety of subjects. While most programming is in support of the students, a dedicated faculty track has also been developed to train faculty to identify and encourage students who have the potential to contribute to the effort to solve social issues in the American South.

David Gray, Poverty to Opportunity Project Coordinator for the Louisiana Budget Project (www.labudget.org), has led sessions during multiple retreat weekends, and has seen the format of the weekend evolve.

“Initially, all the students and faculty attended the same workshops, most of which were lecture-style,” he says. “Now, the retreat features multiple tracks and more workshops so students and faculty attendees can tailor the experience to meet their backgrounds and goals for the weekend. The workshops are more interactive and hands-on too, making the weekend very engaging and rewarding for everyone. Most importantly, the retreat has become a shared teaching and learning experience. Facilitators learn just as much from attendees as we teach—creating a more rewarding, impactful, and meaningful experience for all.”

2013 Fall Retreat participants brainstorm with facilitator Matthew Abrams

Two notable businesses developed during this program are already operating successfully and making an impact. The R.I.S.E program (http://www.gainesvillehousing.org/rise), currently running in Gainesville, GA, as well as Amazig Leathers (http://www.amazigleathers.com/) in Knoxville, TN were conceived and developed to the point of a launch during retreat weekends.

“The most powerful factor for the success of this retreat is the environment that the facilitators create, says Spud Marshall, creator of New Leaf Initiative (www.newleafinitiative.org) and the CoSpace (www.cospace.com), as well as a retreat facilitator since 2011. “There truly is a magic that goes on during the sessions which is not easily replicated or produced.”

Chantella Crosby is a current Campbell University student and retreat participant who has experienced that magic from the other side.

“Our experiences from the retreat are shaped by everyone that we meet, stories shared, ideas not only voiced but created, and the inspiration, encouragement, support, and foundation that all of us contribute to each other and for ourselves,” she says.

The program is facilitated by leaders in the social entrepreneurship movement like Gray and Marshall, as well as others like Alan Webb, creator of Open Master’s (www.openmasters.org); Matthew Abrams, co-founder of Mycelium (www.mycelium.is).

Students from Saint Leo University and Oglethorpe University connect during a retreat weekend

The spirit of dynamic cooperation and bonding that occurs during these weekend retreats is a common experience and one that neither facilitators nor participants ever expected. Daniel Prohaska, a recent Erskine College graduate, has participated in three retreat weekends.

“When I think about the students and faculty who have participated in these weekends, I see a group of people who are committed to transforming our world and leaving it a better place than they found it,” says Prohaska. “I see a group of people who think about the world in an exciting, new way. I see a group of people who can go back into their communities and serve as beacons of hope generating new ideas, businesses, and lifestyles for the people around them. We can do that right now, at this moment, wherever we are.”

Now entering its fifth year, the Service & Social Entrepreneurship Program’s retreat weekends promise continued impact and support to students, faculty, and staff interested in making change in their communities. The fall retreat will take place October 17-19, 2014 and the spring retreat will be April 17-19. More information and registration is available online at www.sullivanfdn.org.

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