Men and women drift in and out of the local soup kitchen housed in a church just a few blocks away from an unusual college dormitory in Beaver Falls, Pa. Once a week, Professor Wendy Van Wyhe and a couple of her students take the short walk down the street to visit the diners and help clean up after the meal.
Inside the church walls, the mood is light. Jokes fly between Van Wyhe and the regulars. Jay asks again if she will be his girlfriend. Tommy shows off his dance moves to his favorite Guns 'n Roses song. And Joe tells her to run for mayor. After dinner, Van Wyhe and the students take out trash, wash dishes, clean up spills and build relationships at the same time.
Students and faculty from Geneva College have been apprehensive of venturing into the little town just below campus since the collapse of the Steel Industry in the 1980's brought an increase of crime into the area.
Van Wyhe, 31, a former student who now teaches at her alma mater, saw the rift between town and college and wanted to do something about it. In 2006, Van Wyhe and Brad Frey, another Geneva professor, co-founded City House, a living learning community for students.
"We believe that the house and our neighborhood can be a context for deep learning and we hope that students come to a better understanding of how our Christian faith can inform where and how we live," Van Wyhe said.
Van Wyhe was born and raised in Pine Island, Minnesota. She moved to Beaver Falls in August 2002 to start working on her master's in higher education at Geneva, where she also served as a resident director in one of the schools's dormitories.
During her time in the dorms, Van Wyhe started to form relationships with Geneva College students, as well as the larger community. Unlike many others at the school, Van Wyhe did not see the depressed town of Beaver Falls as a dangerous place to go.
She started the City House program as a way of showing students the rich community in the town just outside their gates. Van Wyhe eagerly wanted others to see what she saw in the town and reach out of their comfort zones to engage in a diverse neighborhood.
Kenneth Smith, President of Geneva College, firmly believes in Van Wyhe's work with City House: "It gives the students a sense of a neighborhood community. There is often a community in dorms but this connects the living arrangement with the place, not just the physical people," he said.
Smith and his family were invited to dinner at City House last year and were pleased with the interconnected nature of the students and their community. The students seemed to know their neighbors, who have accepted them as a valued part of the neighborhood, he said.
Students can live in City House regardless of their year in school or GPA. But they must have a deep desire to become a part of community. Each of the house's 10 residents must participate in a community activity every week - volunteering at the local soup kitchen, an elderly home, or after school tutoring sessions.
The cost of living is only slightly less expensive than the school's dorms. This is primarily because the house provides food, toiletries, laundry facilities and cable television. All the food served at the house comes from local stores to encourage a better community lifestyle.
Van Wyhe holds weekly meetings to discuss house logistics and hold Bible study. Throughout the semester, the students take weekend retreats to help them build a community with each other and learn how to influence community wherever life takes them.
For the past six years, Van Wyhe has immersed herself in the town's community. Her relationships with neighbors, community members, as well as church involvement and consumer patterns have provided her with an integrated lifestyle that help her stay connected with the whole town.
Caitlin Vickery, a former City House resident, also worked in the soup kitchen with Van Wyhe. Van Wyhe's example of graceful leadership helped show Vickery the best way to live in close proximity with other students: "I did a lot of dumb things when I lived in City House, but she always forgave me and gave me second chances. She taught me a lot about grace."
In addition to her work with City House, Van Wyhe is a deacon at her local church. She also coordinates the community soup kitchen, works on community activities throughout the week, serves as a consultant for Geneva College's outdoor adventure program, Pisgah, and volunteers as a member of Beaver Falls Forever, a citizens' task force.
In 2011 Van Wyhe finished an online study at Eastern University, Philadelphia, earning her master's degree in urban studies. Her thesis, entitled "Place-Identity in Beaver Falls," was an in-depth study into how people's places of residence shapes who they are.
"There is a definite story and image that captures or defines residents in Beaver Falls," she said.
Van Wyhe continues to direct City House, investing time in her local community and the college student's lives.During a block party in April 2011, clumps of people decorated the City House lawn. Van Wyhe drifted from group to group. She roasted a hot dog at the makeshift sidewalk fire pit with a few students who live in City House with her. Neighborhood children played tag with other students below the yard's only tree.
Van Wyhe moved on to join a quiet conversation between Brad Frey, who co-owns the house with her, and one of their neighbors from across the street. They watched two neighborhood children, a boy and a girl, play tag with one of the students and laughed as the young boy tackled the student to the ground. More laughter erupted from the lawn as students and Beaver Falls residents watched the spectacle together. It was moment that might never have been possible without Wendy Van Wyhe's passion for community.
"My hope is that these connections and relationships keep me aware of and compassionate towards the needs that surround me and continually call me to responsible citizenship," she said.