Teaching students about the greater significance in a small act of kindness can be a tall order.
Some students aren’t always receptive to the lesson, showing up only to collect enough volunteer service hours required by the university for graduation.
For those, experience is often the best teacher, said Jenairo Thornton, a graduate assistant in the Department of Athletics whose job it is to find community engagement opportunities for athletes.
Last month, he took a group of female athletes to a service day at CAARE Inc., a Durham-based nonprofit that offers a variety of health and social services for needy residents. Celebrating their project to build a 15-bed shelter for homeless veterans, the staff at CAARE held a sleepover to help students empathize with the plight of the homeless.
A few of the students were reluctant to spend a cold night without amenities, and their displeasure showed. But by morning, the mood for one particular student turned around. She told Thornton she had been raised by her single mother, and she couldn’t stop thinking about what life would have been like if they were homeless.
“It was a gut-shot for her because she realized she was blessed,” Thornton said. “At that moment, I smiled because I had accomplished my goal for the event.”
Thornton arrived at NCCU in 2009, after receiving a bachelor’s degree in business management/marketing from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. He had been shopping around for a graduate program when he recalled the advice given to him by his mom and dad, who both passed away when Thornton was a teen.
“My parents always taught me never go anywhere where you are not wanted,” said Thornton, who was born and raised in Memphis, Tenn. “Out of my choices, NCCU showed the most interest and hospitality.”
NCCU Athletics Director Ingrid Wicker-McCree said Thornton, who is earning a master’s in athletic administration, has been a great addition to the department.
“I’m very proud of Jenairo and his efforts and dedication to the task that we gave him,” she said. “He’s very creative in finding those partnerships in the community and exposing students to what we are trying to do.”
Thornton also participates in the activities he finds for the students. So far, he’s helped organize events with Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Habitat for Humanity, Stop Hunger Now, Million Meals, Sharing and Caring, Share the Warmth, the Durham Rescue Mission, Durham Public Schools and a bone marrow donor drive.
Thornton said he finds the work as gratifying as the students do. And he thinks often about his parents, who instilled in him the lesson of helping others. His mom was a high school math teacher, and his dad worked as a supervisor for the U.S. Postal Service.
“I want to think that they would be proud of me,” said Thornton, who spent his childhood summers picking snap peas and purple hull peas on the back roads of Pine Bluff. “I wrestle with that at least weekly. I ask, ‘have I carried myself in a manner in which they would be proud?’ ”
Thornton is on track to graduate in May and said he would like to stay in the Durham area, which he now thinks of as home. In fact, he would like to continue working at NCCU.
“The culture and the environment in the Athletics Department is excellent,” he said. “It matches my personality. I fit.”
-- By Angie Basiouny