The Power of the NIU Spirit: NIU employees are changing lives in their free time

Destiny McDonald, ’10, M.S.Ed. ’12, and other Huskies helped changed the life of an elderly man in Joplin, Missouri, in one week after he had been struggling to rebuild his home for two years because of a tornado that had devastated the town.

During a Huskie Alternative Break, McDonald and 10 students worked with the man to put some of the finishing touches on his home, such as tiling, staining and laying hardwood floors. The man and his wife had been living on the east coast with a son, but he was clinging to hope for a new life in Joplin.

“The husband refused to give up on the town that he and his wife had called home for several decades,” she said. “He hoped that their newly rebuilt home would convince her to return.”

McDonald, assistant director for undergraduate research and program partnerships in the Office of Student Engagement and Experiential Learning, is just one of many NIU employee volunteers who are changing lives. NIU Nexus is the program that matches alumni and employee interests with volunteer opportunities.

She admits that as a student, she was obligated to do service work as part of the commitment to campus organizations. Now she does it by choice because it allows her to stay connected with students and to give back to her community.

“Because I am a higher education professional, I never want to get so disconnected from the students that I don’t know what their needs are or how I can improve what I do every day in my career to help them,” said McDonald, whose volunteer efforts include NIU Cares Day, the Huskie Food Pantry and the Communiversity Gardens on campus.

The DeKalb resident also believes in setting an example for her family on the importance of giving back to the community that benefits their lives.

“When I do work in the community garden, I bring my [3-year-old] son. I want him to grow up having a service spirit and knowing that the world is bigger than himself,” she said.

While supervising the collection of bicycles during last year’s NIU Cares Day, Monique Bernoudy, M.S.Ed. ’92, realized the power of leadership and teamwork.

She recalled watching a nonprofit coordinator stack a sea of bicycles into a pickup because they were overflowing from the donation container.

“On so many occasions, I wanted to say we had reached our limit [in the truck], but she was so exuberant and confident that I continued to stack those bikes,” said Bernoudy, acting assistant vice president of the Office of Academic Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. “When we finished, I was astonished that we were able to pack all of the bikes. It taught me a valuable lesson in the power that one individual can have on another’s ability to succeed. It exemplifies why many of us volunteer: it is the hope that we are making a difference.”

Bernoudy also connects with students during move-in day and at the Huskie Food Pantry. She also serves as a classroom and student program speaker, adviser and program judge. No matter what, she said, the events are a humbling experience because of the people that she encounters and the tenacity of the students.

“I am always struck by the vast similarities that we share with one another and, if given the opportunity, how many ills of the world could be resolved by simply getting to know one another on a common ground,” she said.

Bernoudy has made NIU her No. 1 choice for volunteering because she believes in its mission, values and opportunities for students.

“As a Huskie family, we have a responsibility to personally engage in ensuring that all feel welcome, are supported and have the best opportunity to achieve success,” Bernoudy said.

She also believes that volunteering aligns with her values to pay it forward and lead by example.

Cody Carter, ’09, M.A. ’15, started volunteering for Northern this spring, soon after he was hired as a digital communications specialist for the NIU Alumni Association.

“I have volunteered with different organizations in the past, but I wanted to get involved volunteering at NIU because this is a place that I care deeply about,” Carter said. “NIU is where I work and where I have studied, and it is a major part of the community where I live. If I can help improve NIU in some way, then I am also helping improve the lives of myself, my family and our neighbors.”

Carter, Bernoudy and McDonald all believe that volunteering is a give-and-take.

“I have found that to volunteer, you end up getting outside of your comfort zone a bit – which I try to challenge myself to do,” he said. “I find that when I volunteer, I learn new and interesting skills and information that I probably would have never known about if I didn’t take the time to volunteer.”

After serving as a judge for NIU’s Undergraduate Research and Artistry Day (URAD), when students present their research, artwork and capstone projects, Carter reconnected with one of the students that he had judged. As she was picking up her cap and gown for graduation, he had the opportunity to congratulate her on winning an award for her URAD project and to hear about her new job at a forest preserve.

That warm feeling of making a difference is what it’s all about, according to the volunteers.

“None of us is successful on our own. We have all been blessed to have people assist us, and I want to thank those who have invested in me by investing in others,” Bernoudy said. “It is a simple concept of paying it forward, a concept my parents taught me earlier in life.”

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