COMMUNITY BUILDER

by Suzanne Curtiss ’14

In the summer of 2012 I met Jenica Moore ’06 as she was preparing to move from the Solid Grounds house on Western Michigan University’s campus to the University of Notre Dame. It sounds so linear: Kalamazoo to South Bend. But Moore’s community-building journey has hardly been that, not if you count Ecuador, Jordan, Nigeria, Israel, and Palestine!

“Solid Grounds is a home away from home,” explains Moore. “It’s a place where students can come in, take a nap, watch TV, or even get a break from the heat and relax in the air conditioning. It’s a community of support for all students, regardless of religion or politics.”

Moore has built many communities in the six years since her graduation, pairing her passion for community development with social justice, at home and abroad.

After serving a year as a Spanish interpreter in AmeriCorps in 2007, Moore won a $27,000 scholarship from Rotary International to promote peace and cultural understanding in Jordan. For one year, she studied at the Language Center at the University of Jordan in Amman and participated in two service projects there.

At the Madaba Youth Center, Moore partnered with Peace Corps Volunteers to create a sustainable education program for local children. The program focused on the recent growth of tourism. The program helped children understand Madaba as an important cultural center, where many visitors from around the world come. 

“We wanted to help kids not only understand why people were coming to Madaba, but also understand that their futures might be in the tourist industry,” she explains. “Because of high unemployment, tourism would introduce jobs into the area, and we wanted the kids to know that it was something they could take part in.”

The program brought in speakers to address the area’s changing economic situation and organized a series of field trips to the various destinations that attracted tourists to the area.

“Most of the children had never seen these places, even though they lived just minutes away,” says Moore.

Cameras in hand, the children took pictures that were later entered into a photo contest. The winner was announced at an event hosted by the youth center in which families, locals, and foreign visitors could vote for their favorite picture.

Moore wrote and received a grant from Rotary to support the youth center, securing enough money to buy supplies and ensure funding for the program the following year.

The grant also benefited Gift of Life Amman (GOLA), a charity specializing in heart surgeries for Jordanian children. Moore visited with children, families, and doctors before, during, and after surgeries to provide Arabic-English interpretation and emotional support. Doctors from the U.S. completed 13 surgeries in 10 days.

Moore lived with a host family in Madaba in order to fully engage in local culture.   

“It was a controversial move at the time because all of the visiting students had lived in Amman without host families for the past several years,” she says. “I knew people would speak to me in English if I stayed in the city, and I wanted to learn the language. I wanted to cultivate community.”

Although Moore’s grandparents were born in Syria, Moore did not speak or understand Arabic when she first arrived in Jordan other than the few words her mother had taught her. After a year of living with her host family and attending private tutoring sessions with a Peace Corps cultural advisor, she became fluent in Arabic.

Although Moore moved freely among Muslim and Christian circles, she realized that her freedom had its limits.

“I made a lot of Muslim friends at the university, and they often invited me to their homes to meet their families,” she says. “I would never have been able to invite them to my home and meet my [Christian] host family.” Although there are work environments and friendships among Christians and Muslims, some areas and some families experience higher religious tension than others.

Moore returned to the U.S. in 2008 and began applications for graduate school, but then opted to become locally involved with various ministry and social justice groups, including Solid Grounds.

Moore first became involved with Solid Grounds her junior year at K, and in 2008 became part of a student leadership team that helped university students develop leadership skills through service to the community.

She also served as social justice coordinator at the Wesley Foundation of Kalamazoo. In that position Moore worked to call attention to local social injustices by organizing event speakers and service projects. She also developed a leadership team and designed leadership trainings for graduate and undergraduate students of Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo College, Kalamazoo Valley Community College, and members of the Wesley Foundation to create an educational and professional development program that collaborates with local nonprofit organizations.

In the summer of 2011 Moore journeyed to Nigeria for two months as part of a collaboration with Rotary and the Christian Reformed Church. She shadowed professors in the Nigerian city of Jos who were working to improve access to education by addressing the root causes of violence in the Plateau State.

As part of that internship, Moore participated in a Pentecostal research project in which she reviewed questionnaires given to local religious leaders. The purpose was to identify religious perceptions about the violence in order to create a discourse about possible peace initiatives.

“I think the most important lesson I’ve learned through all of my experiences abroad is to interview, research, and ask your own questions,” explains Moore. “Often what I hear is happening in the country is only part of the story.”

Within the last few days of that internship, violence broke out across the city, and Moore was able to observe the effectiveness of the peaceful measures put in place by the professors. One of the professors organized a group called Young Ambassadors, which trained Nigerian youth to recognize precursors of violence and then take steps to prevent it by reporting circumstances to authorities, especially influential religious leaders.

Moore also worked with a nonprofit organization called Beautiful Gate, which builds wheelchairs for polio victims.

“Without
"In all of my classes I received a social justice experience."
wheelchairs people with polio have no means of navigating Jos,” she says. “For them a wheelchair is access to education.”

The organization is run by Ayuba, a polio sufferer whose primary education was delayed until the age of 19 when he finally received a wheelchair. He continued his education through law school, and now employs persons whose lives have been affected by polio. He also hires both Christians and Muslims, which is an uncommon practice in parts of Nigeria.

Moore has appreciated the encouragement and independence that Rotary has given her to strengthen community across the world.

“Rotary is there to help make the world a better place in the best humanitarian way possible,” she says. “They do an excellent job of offering educational opportunities and scholarships for people to help build local, national, and global communities.”

She says Rotary has complemented her K education.

“It was at K that I was first encouraged to join Rotary,” she says. “Coming back from study abroad in Ecuador, my eyes were opened to the world. I talked to Angela Gross [assistant director in the Center for International Programs] and told her that I wanted to do more internationally. She suggested Rotary.”

Moore then became involved with her local Rotary club in Comstock Park, Michigan. A year later the organization funded her trip to Jordan.

“When I interviewed for the scholarship to Jordan, I didn’t think I had a chance,” she recalls. However, the committee was impressed with the breadth of her education, and she credits K for nurturing all of her different interests.

“I was an English major with a creative writing emphasis, but in all of my classes I received a social justice experience,” she says.

Creative writing and social justice have become two passions that Moore intends to link professionally, and for two weeks in early August, she traveled to Israel and Palestine with a group of American and Mexican writers and artists to do workshops with Israeli writers and Palestinian artists. Together, they discussed how creative writing can serve as a voice for justice, and what it’s like creating art in conditions of oppression.

Moore started graduate school at the University of Notre Dame in the fall, working on her M.F.A. in creative writing. After the two-year program, she plans to earn a Ph.D. in the subject, teach at the college level, and initiate cultural research projects during the summers.

She would like to teach at a smaller school like K, where close, personal relationships with students are the norm.

“I want to be the kind of professor that invites students over to her house to play euchre, like [Professor of Biology] Dr. Sotherland,” she says.

Photo 1 - Jenica with local children in Jos, Nigeria.
Photo 2 - Jenica with women in Rotaract, a Rotary for people ages 18 to 30.
Photo 3 - A worker at the Beautiful Gate Foundation.
Photo 4 - Jenica with Beautiful Gate founder Ayuba, at his shop in Jos.
Photo 5 - Edison, who lost the use of his legs to polio, navigates Jos with his Beautiful Gate wheelchair.


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