Building a Better Backyard

By Rob O'Connor '95
Associate Editor

Stephanie Oshrin '12 can't forget the third-grade boy she met while volunteering one summer at a women's shelter in her hometown of Hattiesburg, Miss.

He was struggling in school and needed help. When Oshrin discovered the boy couldn't read, she worked with him every day until he progressed from "See Spot Run" to books on sports, his favorite subject. She took him to the library, a place he had never been before but could now enjoy, in part, because of what she did.

"I'll always remember him because it was the best feeling I ever had," she said of the opportunity to help a child learn to read.

Oshrin continues to help children at the Women's Shelter of Central Arkansas, where she volunteers two to three times a week and routinely sees seven to 10 kids and their mothers who live at the shelter.

An estimated 1.3 million women in the United States are victims of domestic violence each year. During the 1960s and 1970s, shelters like the one in Conway where Oshrin volunteers were developed to offer safety and support to women and children. In addition to food and housing, shelters offer support groups and counseling services.

"I tutor and help with art, but the art projects we do are a part of therapy," she said. "Even though we do plenty of really fun things together, my main purpose is to facilitate children's group."

In her three years of serving at the shelter, Oshrin has experienced a cycle of emotions.

"Some of my happiest and most cherished memories of the past three years come from the shelter, but I have also lost many nights of sleep over the things I have seen there," she said.

The opportunity has also offered her perspective both on the difficult circumstances that women and children face and the role that she can play in their lives.

"I can't change the fact that the women and children have been harmed by those who were supposed to protect them," she said. "But I can prove to them that someone cares enough to show up week after week."

Thanks to a grant she received from Your Hendrix Odyssey: Engaging in Active Learning, Oshrin is helping the shelter redo its backyard so that the kids will have a safe place to be active.

"I knew I wanted to help them through Odyssey and leave the shelter better than when I found it," she said. "I found out what they really needed was a better backyard."

"I want to fix the backyard because it is often the only place that the children can get away from what has happened to them, and it is the mothers' oasis from a crowded house," she said. "The children deserve a world that is full of love and safe from abuse. I can't give them that, but I do have the resources to give them a swing set, a garden, and a place to ride their bikes."

But a building project was a bit out of her element, she said.

"I'm good at organizing people and ideas," she said. "But as far as construction goes, I need a lot of help."

She is currently assembling a group of Hendrix students to help put together playground equipment and complete the project.

Oshrin is indeed good at organizing people and ideas.

In January 2011, she helped organize the state's first Rally for Reproductive Justice on the steps of the Arkansas State Capitol in Little Rock. The rally brought together more than 250 reproductive rights advocates on the 38th anniversary of the U.S Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision.

The seven-member planning committee for the event included Oshrin, who chaired the committee, and fellow Hendrix students Daniel Williams '12, Hailey Travis '12, and Leigh Ann Jensen '11.

The rally was sponsored by the Arkansas chapter of ACLU, Planned Parenthood of Arkansas and Eastern Oklahoma, and the Little Rock chapter of the National Organization for Women, a group Oshrin worked with the previous summer as an intern in NOW's national office in Washington, D.C.

Through the event, she connected with Hendrix alumna Maria Jones '77, president of the Little Rock chapter of the American Association of University Women, which also co-sponsored the event. Serendipitously, Oshrin was living in Jones' former room in Galloway Hall.

"There was definitely some really good social justice mojo going on there," Oshrin said.

One of the rally's speakers was Dr. Joycelyn Elders, former Surgeon General of the United States, who commented to Oshrin that it was the first time she had witnessed an event of this magnitude in Arkansas.

"The energy was just astounding," said Oshrin, who attributed the event's strong attendance to the intergenerational audience of older women's rights advocates and younger, college-age activists.

Oshrin clearly represents the latter group and believes she and her classmates can play an important role in social change.

"I think college students have special resources and skills, and we're capable of giving back," she said. "Why wouldn't we use the time we have to give back?"

In addition to her work on the rally and at the women's shelter, Oshrin has worked with Hendrix education professor Dr. James Jennings' Above the Line project, helping third-grade students in the Delta learn basic skills to improve their standardized test skills. This summer, she studied for five weeks in Stellenbosch, South Africa with ISEP's Nation Building and Development.

"Hendrix has given me the opportunity to learn outside the classroom and that's where I've learned the most," she said.

An international relations major and gender studies minor, Oshrin plans to go to graduate school, likely in public service.