Janice Butler was director of Bucknell University's Women's Resource Center in 1998 when she first became interested in the Bucknell Brigade.
A Williamsport native, Butler had seen first-hand the devastation floods and other natural disasters can bring through her family's experiences during Hurricane Agnes in 1972. She also had a long-standing interest in public outreach. So she answered a campus announcement from a group of students, faculty and staff organizing a trip to Nicaragua to help survivors who lost their homes and livelihood when Hurricane Mitch slammed the capital city of Managua.
Butler took on the task of collecting donations, which ranged from six bags of toys to clothing and cleaning supplies. And in March1999, she and 35 others traveled to Nicaragua. After a week working on relief efforts alongside host agency Jubilee House Community, Butler and the other Brigadistas realized that making a difference in Nicaragua would require a long-term commitment.
"For me personally, that first experience in Nicaragua was really powerful and very transformative," recalled Butler, now Bucknell's director of service-learning. "It gave me a taste for working with students in an intense way toward a common goal and to see participants grow in leaps and bounds toward intellectual growth and understanding of the world."
Butler, along with Dr. Don Stechschulte, Bucknell's director of Student Health Services, and then-campus Chaplain Ian Oliver, made an unofficial pledge to stay involved and to begin efforts to build a clinic in the resettlement community, Nueva Vida. For Butler, there would be no turning back. Her participation put her on a new life and career path.
Butler, who has a bachelor's degree in communications and English from the University of Pennsylvania and a master's in human development and family studies from Pennsylvania State University, signed on as a leader for the second brigade delegation in 2000. With other staff and faculty, she later formed a task force that was the impetus for the Office of Service Leaning, and in 2002 she was appointed to the part-time position of director of service-learning. A year later, the position became full-time.
In the 10 years since the Brigade's inception, 445 students, faculty, staff and community members have traveled to Nicaragua. The focus of the brigade has changed over the years from providing for basic needs to working with JHC on initiatives such as a health clinic and sewing and spinning cooperatives to build a sustainable way of life for Nicaraguans.
As the director of service learning, Butler, along with Assistant Director Kristine Kengor, Class of '03, is involved with a number of projects that involve experiential education. These include initiating alternative break projects such as Hurricane Katrina Recovery trips to New Orleans and the Civil Rights Spring Break Trip, now coordinated through Multicultural Student Services.
Butler also helped to start an Intergroup Dialogue Project, the Empty Bowls program benefiting local food programs, Scholars in Service -- an Americorps project, Bucknell Buddies after-school tutoring, and the Alternative Break Fair. This summer, she traveled to Uganda with a delegation of 15 people for a new initiative, Bicycles Against Poverty, an effort started by Muyambi Muyambi, Class of '11, a Uganda native and Brigade veteran.
As the 2009 recipient of the Burma-Bucknell Award for Promoting Intercultural and International Understanding, Butler was commended for forging "powerful bonds between the Bucknell community and Nueva Vida, helping make possible the construction of two health clinics, a sewing co-op, and the El Porvenir waterline project." The award, which has been given annually since 1958, is named for the special relationship between Burma and Bucknell, dating to 1858, when Shaw Loo, a native of Burma, became the University's first international student.
Butler credits the success of the Brigade to the many people involved.
"The Bucknell Brigade works, and works so well, because lots of different people contribute their talents on a volunteer basis," Butler said. "Really, what the Brigade taught us is that students are hungry for this type of engaged learning, so we needed other opportunities for learning and serving together. It is a very powerful tool for development."
Even after traveling on the Brigade seven times, Butler said each experience is fulfilling in a new way. Each trip also is a reminder that the work must continue.
"I love seeing the students get moved by the experience of visiting a developing country and recognizing the privileges we have in the first world," she said. "Also, I am frustrated and saddened by the fact that while we've made so much progress, there is so much that has remained the same."
Butler also feels fortunate to have been a part of such a significant project.
"I get to see students who really want to make a difference and to witness their journey," she said. "The neat thing is you are connecting minds and hearts and working with your hands in such a way that you connect with humanity and contemplate some big issues."
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