Dickinson College Homepage Dickinson Magazine This issue of the Dickinson Magazine was mailed on Monday, April 2, 2007
From This Issue
Volume 84 • Number 4
Spring 2007

Take These Chances
John Miyahara and students 'serve the world'
By Lauren DeFont

Casually dressed and leaning back comfortably in his desk chair, John Miyahara doesn’t look like a minister. With his soft voice and easy demeanor, he doesn’t sound like a sailor. But he is both of those things and more.

As a member of the U.S. Navy Reserves, a United Methodist minister and director of religious life and community service at Dickinson, you have to wonder how he does it all.

“In my office, we attempt to do things that we think we cannot do,” Miyahara says. “I refer often to my favorite line from a song by Dave Matthews Band, ‘take these chances.’ ”

In fall 2005, Miyahara was summoned to six months of active duty with the Navy.

“In the military reserve, there is always a risk that you will be called,” he says. “I was called to Afghanistan in 2004 but couldn’t go because I didn’t have the field-experience course. So I took the course and began prepping myself mentally to go to Iraq. But then Hurricane Katrina happened.”

Miyahara was assigned to Task Force Navy Family, which assisted the 40,000 to 50,000 Navy personnel who were dislocated by Katrina. He was assigned to a relocation station in Pensacola, Fla., where he and several case workers, counselors and chaplains worked with 2,800 evacuees.

“We helped people with their emotional, physical and spiritual needs,” Miyahara says. “We housed them and assessed their material needs, of course, but when people go through something like that, it’s sure to jar them emotionally.”

Miyahara was in Pensacola for three months then was transferred to New Orleans.

“In the end, I took a one-year leave of absence from Dickinson,” he says. “I was encouraged by everyone in the Dickinson community to stay as long as I was needed.”

In the heart of the devastation, Miyahara recalls “taking care of the caretakers. People were really tired. Even though they were victims themselves, they were trying to help everyone else.”

Though not in Carlisle in the immediate aftermath of Katrina, he was able to assist his temporary replacement Michael Cameron in organizing three separate trips to the area—two to Pascagoula, Miss., and one to New Orleans.

The students spent a week in January repairing St. John’s Episcopal Church. Then, during spring break, a second group rebuilt the Union Baptist Church. Finally, in May, Dickinson students gutted homes in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans.

“Anne Cole ’06 is the one who got the students motivated,” Miyahara says. “We made sure they were aware that these were not party trips. Students had to apply, write essays, be interviewed, pay a share and sign a code of conduct.”

While different students went on each trip, there were a few repeat volunteers. Mindy Chambers ’08 went on two of the trips, and Cameron Kerr ’09 went on all three.

Miyahara saw the dedication of the duo and, when he resumed his post at Dickinson this past Sept. 1, he asked them to head a new organization on campus. This was the birth of Serve the World (STW), a group designed to embody the college’s commitment to engaging the world through service. (For more on the group, see Page 8.)

“We decided on two major service trips per year,” Miyahara says, “one somewhere in the United States during fall pause and a global trip during the winter break. And in the next few years, we will use the fall trips to return to the Gulf region.”

STW’s first international trip was Jan. 3-17 to Jamaica. Miyahara coordinated it with Rev. Earl Harrison, the pastor of 11 different churches there, three of which have schools. The STW group—14 students and three staff members—built the Ginger Hill School in Black River a new classroom to accommodate its 337 students and upgraded its computer lab with 10 donated computers. STW also did construction and repainting on a community church.

“Experiencing Jamaica as a worker and as what felt like an adopted community member was remarkable,” says Kerr. “In two weeks, the kids and the community changed us as much as we impacted them.”

STW will return to the Gulf this spring and, in summer 2008, Miyahara hopes to go to Asia with Peacework, an international volunteer organization.

“What will be different about that trip, and others in the future, is that we will invite alumni to come with us,” says Miyahara. “That’s a good way to develop lifelong connections.”

In the last year alone, Miyahara has served the world in places as far away as Jamaica and as distressed as the Gulf region. And he’s not finished taking chances. “The underlying thing is that I take risks, and I push my students to take risks. Dickinson doesn’t propose to be a status-quo institution.”         

If you are interested in being a part of Serve the World, contact John Miyahara at <miyaharj@dickinson.edu>.


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