At a summer service work project, Mariana Luna-Martinez was asked to build a labyrinth. This was daunting on two fronts, she recalls. Not only did she have no idea how to do it – she wasn’t even sure what it was.
As her team of volunteers picked up shovels and spades and began to dig up the grass behind a church in Hazlet, New Jersey, Luna-Martinez tried to figure out a plan for creating what she learned was a meditative maze. “It was very hot that first day and it was trial and error. It looked like we got nothing done.” But day two went smoother and by the end of the week, Luna-Martinez and her team of Bonner Leaders had created a prayer labyrinth with seven rings.
“The progress was amazing,” she said. “We sat down, we analyzed what we did wrong and what we did right and applied that knowledge to calculate the circles, to place bricks and pebbles. It was a beautiful moment for me because literally the first day we were asking, ‘How are we going to do this?’ We came together, thought outside the box and then did math and applied everything we knew.”
The work was part of the Bonner Leader Program’s summer orientation for both incoming and continuing students at Montclair State University. Chosen through a competitive application process emphasizing service and leadership, the Bonners are part of a nationwide network of more than 80 colleges and universities that provide service-based scholarships and work-study funds to support intensive undergraduate community service and social justice activities throughout their college careers.
“The Bonner Leader program is one of the growing number of public service programs at Montclair where students truly embody the spirit of service we hope all individuals in New Jersey will someday display,” says Krystal Woolston, assistant director of the Center for Community Engagement.
Traveling to Monmouth County in mid August, the Bonners painted the soffits around St. John’s United Methodist Church, stained the outdoor worship center, volunteered at a church food pantry, and worked on homes in the local community. Combined, the Bonner group volunteered more than 1,400 hours to the church and local community.
Luna-Martinez, a junior Biology major with a minor in Leadership Development Through Civic Engagement, was a team leader for the incoming Bonners, an exemplary model of the many Montclair students who are engaged, giving back and making a difference in their lives and the lives of others. Montclair has more than 200 community partners and each year more than 1,000 Montclair students volunteer on special projects and during days of service commemorating 9/11 and Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Volunteer opportunities include the Bonner Leader Program, AmeriCorps and the Community Engaged Learning program.
Those opportunities were what attracted Luna-Martinez to Montclair. “I believe Montclair embodies truly who I am and my values because not only am I Hispanic and first gen, but I’m also passionate and truly believe in the good works of public service,” she says.
These values were instilled in her as a child growing up in Newark after her family lost their belongings in a house fire. “It was our community that helped my family get back on our feet,” Luna-Martinez says. “Throughout the years, my mom and my grandmother taught me what the value and true principle of service was. Every chance we got, if it was donating toys I didn’t play with anymore or participating in food drives, it was those little acts of kindness that geared my passion toward service.”
Bonners commit to a four-year internship program that focuses on community building, diversity and inclusion, civic engagement and social justice. They serve in schools, nonprofit organizations and governmental agencies involved in issues of public concern, including education, safety, housing, food insecurity, youth development and environmental sustainability.
On campus, a sampling of Bonner volunteer activities include event planning for The Global Center on Human Trafficking; assisting students with disabilities in their classes and activities with the Increasing Access to College Project; and stocking shelves and the Red Hawk Food Pantry. In the community, locally in Montclair, they staff after-school programs for middle school students, and in Paterson, Bonners sort donations and pack bags of food for the Father English Food Pantry.
About 30 students took part in the summer orientation program, among them Jess Kershenblatt, a sophomore from Egg Harbor, New Jersey, majoring in Family Science and Human Development. “I know I want to be doing this important work for the people around me, the people I care about, the people who I know need extra hands.”