Be of Service
Student club embarks on its first spring break service trip, challenging disability stereotypes and assumptions
BY SHAWN PROCTOR
BY SHAWN PROCTOR
In many ways, the experience Andrew Wykowski ’20 VSB had on a spring break service trip with the student group LEVEL was similar to that of many others who spend their breaks serving others: there was challenging manual labor, opportunities to better understand the needs of others and important lessons about collaboration and compassion.
But for Andrew, perhaps the most meaningful moment was the afternoon he and others in LEVEL, which aims to make Villanova more inclusive for people of all abilities and disabilities, spent with students at the Community School of Davidson, in North Carolina.
“LEVEL’s work is a reminder that everybody has their own challenges and their own strengths.”
Rachel Heckler ’19 FCN
There, as they decorated “kindness rocks” with positive messages, he talked with children, many of whom had disabilities, about their fears that their futures would be limited. The children were not all that different from Andrew himself, who was diagnosed with dyslexia as a child. He also has overcome a physical challenge: Four years ago, he was paralyzed when he broke his neck in a swimming accident. Over the course of several months, he regained the ability to walk, albeit with some difficulty.
Andrew’s message to the children was simple: “Never let anything hold you back.”
He encouraged them to chase their dreams, including college. And he shared his own experiences from Villanova, where, with the support of LEVEL and the Office of Disability Services, students with disabilities build friendships and find the social and academic resources they need to thrive at Villanova. This year, for the first time, they were also able to participate fully as a group in one of the University’s most treasured traditions: the spring break service trip.
In March, 20 members of LEVEL traveled by van to North Carolina. Their task for the week was to volunteer with organizations whose missions align with LEVEL’s, but it was also to demonstrate that everyone, regardless of disability, can be of service and ignite change in the world.
“LEVEL’s work is a reminder that everybody has their own challenges and their own strengths,” says Rachel Heckler ’19 FCN, secretary of LEVEL. Gregory Hannah, assistant director of Disability Services at Villanova and LEVEL adviser, helped plan the trip over two years, working with staff at two accessible equestrian centers that serve families and veterans. Part of the planning was to ensure that all of the diverse physical needs of the students could be met, while selecting projects that would be challenging yet valuable for all. “Everyone wanted to be sure that the first LEVEL service trip was just right,” Hannah says.
That meant accounting for every detail, so that whether a student was blind, used a motorized scooter or had an invisible disability, like a seizure disorder, he or she would be safe and supported.
Through tireless work during the weeklong trip, the students erased assumptions about the limits of people with disability — some that they had believed about themselves. And, along the way, they strengthened bonds.
“I am amazed at the kind of journey you can go through in a week. LEVEL is such an inclusive group that we became like a family,” says Sarah Godschall ’19 COE, a trip leader.
“Being a part of LEVEL has been the highlight of my Villanova experience, and this trip embodied everything that we in LEVEL strive to be,” adds Mackenzie Ward ’18 CLAS, LEVEL president.
“I am amazed at the kind of journey you can go through in a week. LEVEL is such an inclusive group that we became like a family.”
Sarah Godschall ’19 COE
The students volunteered at the Discovery Trail at Rocky Creek in Statesville, N.C., refurbishing and beautifying features along the 3.2-mile sensory trail used by children and adults on horseback for experiential therapy and education.
The Discovery Trail is accessible to people with disabilities and provides a safe environment in which to engage with nature and wildlife. Its core mission aligns with LEVEL’s: to provide access, support and a full experience to all, regardless of ability.
The service at Rocky Creek, as well as leadership exercises the group did at Triple Play Farm, an equine therapy center, were organized by Tracy Byrnes, an equine specialist in mental health and learning at both organizations.
Byrnes said that she was amazed to see firsthand Villanovans’ resilience, passion and work ethic, which she had heard about from her husband, former Villanova University Alumni Association President Robert “Bob” Byrnes ’76 VSB.
“We are constantly working to rid the stigma of disabilities and mental health, and this group nailed it every day. They were, by far, the best group of young adults we have ever had,” she says.
The students completed an incredible amount of work at Rocky Creek. They gardened; built and refurbished benches, a play-scape for goats, a cross-country jump for horses, kaleidoscopes and braille boards; and painted rocks with inspirational messages for visitors to the Discovery Trail.
“Everyone on the trip contributed to our success,” says group leader Brandon McNabb ’20 COE.
College of Professional Studies student Matthew Steven was a key member of the bench-building team. With verbal coaching from others, Matthew, who is visually impaired, used power tools to sand and drill benches, skills he acquired at a school for the blind. “Just because I’m blind doesn't mean anything. I’m not limited at all,” Matthew says.
While seven days seems too brief for a life-changing experience, for the students who left campus as a group and came back as a family, it was just right.
“I want to incorporate LEVEL's mission of inclusion of people with all abilities into my life,” Sarah says. “I have a fire inside to keep working to change the world.”
Due to the accommodations needed, LEVEL’s service break trip was more costly than others at Villanova. Alumni and friends of the University were inspired by LEVEL’s mission and raised $26,000, more than double their original goal.
The crowdfunding effort was led by Brian Muscarella ’80 VSB, member of the VUAA Board of Directors, president of the Villanova University Club of Charlotte and recipient of the 2018 Father Bill Atkinson Humanitarian Award, which is given by the Office of Disability Services; Robert “Bob” Byrnes ’76 VSB, former Villanova University Alumni Association president; and Stephen Murphy ’85 CLAS.
“We all were blessed to have a Villanova experience that shaped our lives. It is on us, the alumni, to ensure that the current students, able-bodied or disabled, have that experience and more,” Muscarella says.
LEVEL was founded by Ariana Meltzer-Bruhn ’14 CLAS, in partnership with Gregory Hannah of Villanova’s Office of Disability Services and LEVEL’s adviser. After breaking her foot her freshman year, Meltzer-Bruhn was inspired to help build a more inclusive, accessible community and raise awareness of able-ism — discrimination in favor of able-bodied people.
Now, LEVEL is an essential part of campus life. Meltzer-Bruhn continues to be inspired by her LEVEL experiences. In August, she will start medical school at the University of Pennsylvania and hopes to work with patients who have suffered traumatic brain injuries.
While growing in membership and scope, the club has strengthened its partnership with ODS, which Christa S. Bialka, EdD, assistant professor of Special Education, says is a rare one in higher education. LEVEL has also incorporated an academic component through Dr. Bialka, who requires her Introduction to Disability Studies students to partner with a student in LEVEL. This not only applies class theories, but fosters friendships between students from all majors and their LEVEL peers.
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