Bringing Students and Community Together

schmitt shoots!!
Francis McMillan Parks, director of African American Programs and Students Offering Service, is a gifted teacher, counselor, leader, activist, volunteer, and storyteller. She was recently honored by the New York State Legislature for her community service work.

Someone once said: "There are two kinds of people in the world–those who walk into a room and say, ‘Here I am!’ and those who walk in and say, ‘Ah, there you are.’" Francis McMillan Parks, director of African American Programs and Students Offering Service (SOS) at Syracuse University, falls into the second category. Fiercely intelligent, openly compassionate, and resolutely committed to countless causes at the University, in the local community, and in society-at-large, Parks has an impressive resume that cites her gifts as teacher, counselor, leader, activist, volunteer, and storyteller. Yet when she sits with you, smiles, looks into your eyes, and listens intently to every word you say, you somehow feel you’re the one who’s wise and wonderful.

From her office in the basement of Hendricks Chapel, Parks coordinates a variety of projects that bring SU students together as community volunteers. She compares SOS to creating a quilt: Each student who participates makes a unique and precious contribution that enhances the whole fabric of the group. "Our process is an organic one, with many layers and dimensions," says Parks, who recently received a Distinguished Woman of New York State award from the state legislature for her significant contributions to community service.

SOS’s ongoing projects include:

• The International Children’s Project (ICP), launched six years ago with a group of law school students and the Refugee Resettlement Program in response to an influx of Haitian refugees to the Syracuse area. ICP now provides academic instruction and arts-and- crafts activities for children from many different countries.

• The Hendricks Chapel Quiltmakers, which brings together students, faculty, staff, and others to create quilts for Ronald McDonald House of Central New York and Hale House of New York City.

• Participation in such annual events as CROP Walk for Hunger–which drew 80 SU participants in November 1999–Habitat-for-Humanity, and the Share the Warmth Blanket Drive, now in its fourth year.

"There is a misconception that students of this generation are apathetic and uncaring, with no sense of ‘the other,’" Parks says. "But in our interactions with them, we discover that all kinds of students–in Greek houses, in the humanities, in the professional schools–tutor children and adults, do CROP Walk, make quilts for Ronald McDonald House, and build houses for Habitat-for-Humanity. They care deeply about the human condition."

In her role as director of African American Programs, Parks educates students in the contributions of such historical figures as Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass. "People born in the last 25 years have only a vague knowledge of that history," Parks says. Through events like a celebration to honor Rosa Parks for her role in the civil rights movement, and an annual Sojourner Storytelling Conference, Parks brings history to life for SU students. "I try to bring historical information into contemporary perspective," she says. "How do the lives of such heroines as Sojourner Truth inform what we do today?"

In addition to her work at SU, Parks often speaks in the community to professional and charitable organizations. "I delight in talking to community groups," she says. "The people in these audiences may have only seen our students, our University, through the prism of an athletic event or some misbehavior that makes headlines. When I am invited to speak, I convey that we are more than what we are portrayed to be at those times our behavior is abhorrent: We are a community. We celebrate our citizenship in the City of Syracuse."

This spring SOS marked its 10th anniversary with a celebration, "A History of Service...A Future of Service." Festivities included student exhibitions, conversations on community service, and workshops. Past and present members gathered with agencies in the Syracuse community for a day of service. "What SOS is really about is listening to students," Parks says. "It is a reflection of what students believe is an issue of history, of justice, or of the ethical framework of the larger community."
                                                                                                                                                          —AMY SHIRES

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