UNI students Pay It Forward

Nine University of Northern Iowa students had to wait days to take a hot shower.  They would wake up in the mornings, do volunteer work, get back on the bus they rode in on, travel to a different city and end the day in exhaustion…who had time for a shower? Luckily, these students wouldn't have it any other way.

UNI students

Nine UNI students before spending their spring break on the Students

Today Leaders Forever "Pay It Forward" tour.

The nine UNI students used their spring break to join a "Pay It Forward" tour, a weeklong, cross-country service trip put together by the organization Students Today Leaders Forever (STLF).  STLF is a non-profit organization that engages in servant leadership to create positive life experiences. Through Pay It Forward STLF serves thousands of college, high school and middle school students from varying demographics by providing opportunities in service and leadership.

This was the first year UNI students have participated in a Pay It Forward tour. Since there is no UNI STLF chapter…yet…the students joined Illinois State University on their tour.

"We wanted our group to experience the tour and see what it was like before bringing it to UNI," said Melissa Herak, a UNI sophomore majoring in teaching English to speakers of other languages. "After completing this trip, it solidified our decision to start a chapter here."

Three buses left from Illinois State on March 9, with the nine UNI students scattered among them. Each bus traveled a different route and stopped at different cities for service work. The trip's end goal was Charleston, S.C., where all three buses would meet up and participate in one big service project.

"Our service projects were absolutely amazing," said Allison Ostwinkle, a UNI junior majoring in teaching English to speakers of other languages. "In Charleston, West Virginia, we went to a children's clinic in a rundown part of the city. We cleaned tables, washed doors, organized and got the place back into shape. We dug in and cleaned it up and the staff couldn't thank us more. It was really touching and amazing to see the immediate effects of our work."

Herak and the people on her bus volunteered at a homeless shelter, clothing exchange store, a nursing home, did beach restoration and more.

"I've volunteered my whole life," said Herak. "This trip gave me the opportunity to do that plus travel across the country. But looking back, doing all of the service work really puts into perspective how we take things for granted."

Throughout the journey, Herak and Ostwinkle blogged about their experiences.

"Hello again from Charleston, South Carolina," wrote Ostwinkle from her blog. "The opportunity to tour this city has been nothing but a blessing. It is the perfect location for diversity in culture and society. The things I've seen today will truly stick in my mind forever, like a photograph of this moment in time. But a still picture can't fully sum up the complexity and peacefulness of the memories I possess. It would have to be a series of pictures, one right after another, traveling fast enough to seemingly make things come to life."


The Pay It Forward tour culminated in oyster restoration on the beaches of South Carolina.  Picture more than 300 college students forming an assembly line from the top of a hill to the sandy coastline, passing bags upon bags of oysters down the line to be laid out along the shore, which will collect mussels and other organisms to rebuild oyster reefs, all because they simply wanted to help.

"I came back a different person from my tour," said Ostwinkle. "All the people that I spent a week with, along with all the people that we served and met along the way, had an impact on my life, even if just a little. I have a new view of the community and the world. I'm more understanding and aware of the conditions some people are living in, and have a certain drive to spread the love and all that I've been blessed with to others. My outlook on life is so much different...it's beautiful."

Herak and the other UNI students that went on this trip are in the process of bringing an STLF chapter to campus. They hope to do their own Pay It Forward tour next year. For more information about STLF, visit http://www.store.stlf.net/home.