Over the course of their first year in college, Bonner Scholars explore the spectrum of civic engagement, aiming to identify social issues they want to further explore: They volunteer at different sites in Richmond, take a leadership studies course on Justice and Civil Society, and attend training and educational events on and off campus.

The year culminates with a trip to an urban or rural area within six hours of Richmond. This May, 15 first-year Bonner Scholars drove down to Raleigh, N.C., a capital city similar to Richmond, which has adopted a 10-year plan to end homelessness.

“Raleigh was a good choice for the trip because of the large strides it has made toward reducing homelessness in the area,” says Bonner Scholar Jenna Moehring, ’13, a native of nearby Cary, N.C. Rather than aiming to wipe out 100 percent of homelessness, she says the city is, “…trying to provide more services to homeless people. It also strives to capture people before they even fall into the homeless cycle.”

Over three days, the group volunteered at Salvation Army of Wake County and the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle. On their fourth day, when they returned to Richmond, they volunteered at the Central Virginia Food Bank’s Community Kitchen and Lamb's Basket food pantry.

They also heard from two experts on homelessness in Raleigh — Ken Maness, an urban planner with more than 20 years experience, and Richard Fitzgerald, director of development for Raleigh Rescue Mission.

“It was interesting to have Ken talk about the plan from a macro, government perspective and Richard from that of an ‘in the trenches’ non-profit organization,” says Kim Dean, director of the Bonner Scholars Program at Richmond, who accompanied the group.

To facilitate reflection on their volunteer experiences and the connected educational talks, the group watched two films about homeless men during their stay in Raleigh — “Pursuit of Happyness” and “The Soloist.”

“[The films] gave the students an opportunity to really think more deeply about the complexities of homelessness and people who are themselves homeless,” says Dean, pointing to the opposing situations of the two main characters.

The experiences struck a chord with Moehring, who volunteered with the homeless community in Raleigh as a high school student, and who now works with released prisoners in Richmond, helping them assimilate back into society.

“All of the activities we did, and the people who spoke to us, emphasized the importance of teaching the homeless life skills and acting as a ‘guide’ for them to show them how to become successful,” she says. After watching the films, "We talked about how it is important to really listen to what these people want, and what their needs are, rather than just assuming that you know what is best for them.”

The first-year trip is designed to encourage Bonner classmates to bond, as well as to connect the principles they’ve learned in class with structured volunteer experiences and reflection.

Perhaps most importantly, the trip is an opportunity to think more critically about what their impact in the community might be as they progress through the Bonner program. “The idea is that the trip serves as a spring board for meaningful experiences to come,” says Dean.

Homeward, a Richmond-based nonprofit and partner of the University's Bonner Center for Civic Engagement, developed a 10-year plan to eliminate homelessness in Greater Richmond by the year 2017. Learn more about their plan and their work in Richmond.