It’s hard to tell where Jennifer Hinton’s real job ends and her volunteer work begins. As program director and clinical education coordinator for Western Carolina University’s recreational therapy program, Hinton spends much of her time teaching her students about service learning, coordinating volunteer projects for them or doing community service herself — sometimes for work, her church, her family — or often a combination of some of them, if not all.
Through classes this year alone, she and her students have volunteered at seven different regional agencies: the Cullowhee and Sylva community gardens, Full Spectrum Farms, HIGHTS Inc., Jackson County Department on Aging, Macon Valley Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, Person First Services and Youth Villages. And that’s not all for Hinton. “My husband is the director of the Wesley Foundation here on campus, so I end up doing all kinds of mission work and related service as well,” she said.
One project that takes Hinton’s time and talent is the HIGHTS program, a community nonprofit organization that serves some of the most vulnerable youth in Western North Carolina. For the past seven years, Hinton has devoted her professional and personal time to enriching the service-learning experiences between her students and the HIGHTS students — primarily middle schoolers — even revamping the curriculum of her adventure-based therapy class to ensure her students moved beyond the bricks and mortar of WCU’s campus.
“This past year, with curriculum changes, we had to change the way we meet the needs of the HIGHTS students. We have worked to make it a service project where students are not connected to a class,” Hinton said. “I’m helping to collaborate with [HIGHTS] staff to set up times where students can do either community service projects or recreation activities in the community together.”
As a volunteer, Hinton serves on the HIGHTS board of directors, bringing her expertise from a therapy standpoint, among other things. Hinton said she commits about five hours a week to the program, which serves kids who have experienced severe trauma and poverty in their lives and often are the victims of or are perpetrators of a crime.
“For this particular project, I’m the bridge between a group of WCU students who are seeking to gain experience with these vulnerable youth and a program that really needs this type of contact and set-up,” Hinton said. “Their staff, my students and I all meet with their kids once a week. It’s a multifaceted program between recreational therapy and HIGHTS to serve these kids.”
Additionally, Hinton serves on the consumer rights committee for Person First Services, a day treatment program that is a division of Disability Partners, formerly Pathways. “The committee reviews incidents that have happened with the participants to provide some background and expertise on what might have happened differently or ways to move forward when people are having behavioral issues. The key is making sure nobody’s rights are violated,” Hinton said.
And, she serves as the official club adviser for WCU’s Wesley Foundation. “I often serve as the nonstudent, female adult leader when they have mission trips out of the country,” she said.
Hinton and her husband have two children, both teenagers, who keep her busy with their activities, too. But she knows that serving as a volunteer is really just who she is; it’s how she feeds herself. She does dream, though, of a day when her time is her own. “I feel that one of my talents right now is connecting students to the service providers that are out there, but I often don’t get to connect myself,” Hinton said. “I can see myself having more time to do the simple things, like helping my husband with his current Meals on Wheels route or spending more time at the Community Garden.
“I can’t imagine not serving. That’s how we’ve lived our lives, that’s how we’ve raised our kids — that there’s something out there for you to do regardless of whether it’s a volunteer position, or a well-paid position — whatever it is — how are you going to serve others?” she said.
Hinton’s volunteer work dovetails perfectly with this year’s I Love WCU Month in February, which urges all WCU faculty and staff to donate their time and talent as well as their treasure. WCU’s Center of Community Engagement and Service Learning and Division of Advancement hope 100 percent of WCU’s faculty and staff will participate.