North Carolina Alumni Make LEVEL’s First Service Trip Possible
Last month, 20 Villanova students traveled to North Carolina for a weeklong service break experience, volunteering at Rocky Creek Ranch in Statesville, NC and Triple Play Farms in Davidson, NC. While such service trips are a popular and often life-changing experience for students at Villanova, this one was the first of its kind: Participants were members of LEVEL, a student group that unites Villanovans of various abilities and disabilities to change the way ability is perceived.
“The break trip was a great event for the Office of Disability Services (ODS). It further enhanced the opportunities and experiences available for students living with disabilities, which is a huge part of the reason the office exists,” says Stephen McWilliams, MFA, PhD, Director of Disability Services.
Volunteering at the ranches, which provide equine therapy and other mental health services, the LEVEL students learned about horse therapy, painted benches, constructed jumps for the horses, created braille boards, built fences and completed other projects to support the ranches’ missions. In doing so, the students grew individually and as a team, challenged their own assumptions about disabilities.
“This was a great step for the Office of Disability Services and LEVEL to work with our colleagues in Campus Ministry to shape and facilitate an accessible service break trip. It took our group to the next level as we continue to provide a meaningful, inclusive college experience,” says Gregory Hannah, Assistant Director of Disability Services.
The trip took years of planning and months of coordination—and Villanova alumni were eager to lend a hand.
The students needed a service site that would be fully accessible and provide mission-based activities that could engage the entire group. Longtime volunteer and former Villanova University Alumni Association (VUAA) President Robert Byrnes ’76 recognized an opportunity and connected ODS with his wife, Tracy, who works at both Rocky Creek Ranch and Triple Play Farm as a PATH, Intl. Certified Equine Specialist in Mental Health and Learning, as well as a Therapeutic Riding Instructor. She and the horses at the facilities work daily, alongside a licensed therapist, to help veterans and people struggling from anxiety, eating disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, autism, ADHD and more.
“It was an honor to host the LEVEL students at Rocky Creek and Triple Play Farm. In our industry, we are constantly working to rid the stigma of disabilities and mental health, and this group nails it every day,” Byrnes says. “Their passion for their cause, and each other, is infectious. All the students that visited are incredibly kind, vulnerable, thoughtful and motivated. We look forward to planning another year and building on what we have started.”
VUAA Board Member and Villanova Club of Charlotte President Brian Muscarella ’80 also shared the desire to help. Muscarella, who is paralyzed, toured the facilities and worked with Byrnes and ODS to make sure the activities and goals planned for the trip would meet accessibility needs.
As planning continued, it became apparent that there would be significant costs associated with the trip, including travel in fully accessible vans. So, LEVEL students turned to Villanova Crowdfunding, an initiative offered through the Annual Fund that helps students launch crowdfunding sites to support special projects. Within a matter of weeks, LEVEL raised $26,000—surpassing its $20,000 goal for the trip. Muscarella and several other alumni fueled the effort by generously offering to match donations. More than 140 alumni, parents and friends made a gift.
“Villanova alumni, parents, relatives, friends, neighbors and strangers took to this campaign and really made our vision a reality,” Hannah says.
The funds raised not only cover the cost of the trip, but also provide resources to support LEVEL’s ongoing programs and initiatives.
As the students embarked on the journey to North Carolina, they launched a blog to chronicle all they would accomplish. Following a beloved service break trip tradition, they ended each evening with reflections—many of which they published on the blog.
After the success of this trip, McWilliams and Hannah hope to make the LEVEL service break experience a new tradition. “Being able to provide our students the chance to support other communities beyond our campus and spread our mission—it’s what this group will continue to seek in the future,” Hannah says.