Writing students connect with orphans through stories

For students in Jill Morstad’s Basic Skills in English class, learning became much more real than learning how to order words on a page.  This spring, the 16 students undertook an unusual project to benefit orphans at the Pan American Health Service, Inc.’s orphanage in Peña Blanca, Honduras, while enhancing their own communication skills.

The project began when Morstad asked the students to write in the style of Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories. “I wanted students to begin with the simple study of a story,” she said. “We all know what stories are: we hear them, we tell them and we share them. I wanted the students to start at a place where they were comfortable with their own language skills.”

In the famous stories, Kipling outlines explanations for how certain animals got their present-day characteristics. Students in Morstad’s class were each given a beanie baby toy animal and asked to follow the Just So formula to build a story around how it came to be. “We made some preliminary lists of what characteristics the animals had or didn’t have and how the story might account for them,” explained Morstad. “For example, if the skunk has a white stripe down his back, what he doesn’t have are any friends. So one of the stories was ‘Why the Skunk Has No Friends.’”

Tanya Cochran, associate professor of English, donated several Beanie Babies to the project but informed Morstad she intended to give them to the family of junior psychology major, Laura Selivanoff, whose family travels to Honduras several times a year to visit friends and children at an orphanage in Peña Blanca. “Suddenly I thought ‘what if the stories could go with the Beanies?’” recalled Morstad. “What could help student writers more than giving them a real audience?”

Morstad invited Laura Selivanoff and her mother Sheryl, to come speak to the class about their work in the Central American country. “We’ve gone down every year for about five years,” explained Laura. “We’ve done construction work and grounds cleaning, but a lot of what we do is at graduation. We try to help the students in the orphanage to have a real graduation experience by buying dresses for the girls and suits for the guys. Most of their classmates have families who provide those things, but these kids don’t have the money. We go to help make them feel special and feel as though they have a family who provides those little extras.” 

The Selivanoffs played audio recordings and showed a video to the class about the orphanage and a student trying to raise money for college. “He had quite a testimony about how difficult his life had been before he arrived at the orphanage and how challenging things have been for him,” said Morstad. “Sometimes I think we take our educational experiences for granted and don’t always appreciate that other people are desperate to learn and surmount large obstacles to get into the college classroom.”

The English students responded well to the Selivanoffs’ presentation and had their stories translated into Spanish by the end of the semester. “This time I wasn’t just writing for a teacher, so I put more time and meaning into it,” said Dillon Conley, freshman pre-nursing student. “My story is based on a true story and I know that some of those kids in Honduras will probably be able to relate to it.”

The assignment provided a unique opportunity for students to express themselves. “In my story a rambunctious lamb who loved to go astray is saved from a dragon by the Shepherd Jesus,” said Thomas Clark, freshman pre-nursing student. “At the end he realizes that Jesus' way is best and asks Him for the power to obey. I thought this story would be a good way to share my testimony and show readers Jesus' great Love for them.”

“I put myself into the story because it’s about me,” said Conley. Based on personal experiences, he wanted to show the kids the importance of facing your fears.

Conley recounts the tale of a bird that learns through the challenges in his life how to be brave and a leader to the other animals. “I had a white bird with long legs, an orange beak and a black head,” he explained. “No one knew what type of bird it was or where it came from, which was kind of like me when I came to Union. Even though I don’t know any of these kids, I do know some of the hardships that they go through and I want to be a role model for them and to give encouragement.”

The stories will accompany the Selivanoffs to the orphanage where they will be distributed with their corresponding animals. “There are kids all the way from infancy to their early 20s,” said Laura. “I think that they’ll love the idea. They like to get toys and gifts from the U.S. and having the stories will add a personal element. It’s good for helping to bridge the divide. They’ll feel like they’re connected to Union instead of just randomly receiving gifts from people they don’t know.”

“I hope the experience of doing this assignment makes these particular students feel more connected to Union even in their very first semester,” said Morstad. “In the beginning of their college career they’re part of a larger commitment not only to their development, but to all our development as servants, leaders and writers.”

Morstad enjoys using service-learning projects to instruct students and frequently assigns them in her classes. “Service learning is so connected to what we want to do at Union and God certainly had a hand in this project,” she said. “I did not sit down and think it out; it all developed through a circumstantial conversation with Dr. Cochran that connected the assignment with the kids and the Beanie Babies. There was a master plan and we just played a part.”

“I would definitely recommend this kind of project,” said Clark. “My motivation for writing was significantly increased and I greatly enjoyed doing it.”