Envisioning a better world

Jul 20, 2007

Kettering graduate Jason Braman had an idea about how to engage more college students in community service and he's turning that idea into a volunteerism movement - with a little help from his friends.

Jason Braman doesn't just get by with a little help from his friends, he gets visionary. Braman, a 2005 graduate of Kettering University and manufacturing engineer for RoMan Manufacturing in Grand Rapids, Mich., founded real SERVICE, a non-profit organization focused on connecting college students with community service opportunities.

Motivated by his faith and what he sees as a communication gap between students and service organizations needing volunteers, Braman came up with a plan to facilitate better communication between the two and thereby improve civic engagement among young adults.

"This was never just a Kettering University-based idea," he said, "it was not necessarily a worldwide idea though either. My original thought was to focus on Kettering and other local colleges and that morphed in to a worldwide vision."

That morph was the direct result of attending LeaderShape Institute during his junior year (2003) through the Kettering LEADERS Fellows program. LeaderShape is an interactive experience that builds leadership skills through self-discovery and practical experiences that are designed to equip young adults to become extraordinary leaders. Braman said it helped him define his internal compass.

Braman, who currently lives in Jenison, Mich., with his wife Deanna, returned to his work term energized and impatient to get started on making his vision a reality. "I called up a bunch of friends and said 'this is what I want to do.' Between five and 10 people said 'yes I'm in' and two months before school was back in session we started planning," said Braman. (Kettering's curriculum is based on professional cooperative education, with students attending classes and working in their field of study on rotating three-month terms year round.)

Once back on campus, the momentum that started during their work term increased and Braman and his core group began developing what would eventually become the real SERVICE playbook and a business plan most for-profit companies could envy. "I was given several gifts in life, namely: a thirst to lead, a calling for entrepreneurship, enthusiasm, vision, and a thirst for continued improvement and learning," said Braman, "real SERVICE is an outlet for all of these gifts."

"There is an obvious communication gap between service opportunities and students," he said of the focus of real SERVICE. "Any student, male or female, freshman or senior, involved or uninvolved can pick up a phone and call the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan, or the Flint Children's Museum, or a local school and find service opportunities, but who does?"

With classes, fraternity or sorority obligations, time with friends and club activities already weighing students down, why would they go out of their way to create their own service opportunities when there is little pressure to do so, he reasoned.

Braman's main premise for real SERVICE is that service opportunities are already planned and organized by real SERVICE members and all an interested student has to do is show up and volunteer.

Although he recognizes that fraternities and sororities and other student organizations perform community service, he felt there was a disconnect for those students not affiliated with the Greek community or formal group who wanted to volunteer.

"It's also easier for students to answer the call of a peer than it is for them to set aside extra time to seek out volunteer opportunities on their own or seek out their university's director of community service," he explained.

"real SERVICE does make strong efforts to stay in close contact with the universities for our active chapters. The closer we stay in contact with the university the closer our efforts will be in line with what's best for the university and surrounding community," Braman said.

Dubbed a "service organizer," real SERVICE is very open and broad-based in its identification and selection of service opportunities with which to connect college students.

"Some examples of "service opportunities" include helping Habitat for Humanity build a house for a Saturday, helping Carriage Town Ministries serve dinner on Tuesday, working with a local school to build playground equipment or serving with a local community foundation on their annual clean-up day," Braman said. "A 'service opportunity' is an opportunity where someone can become engaged civically through service that is meant to enhance the greater good; which includes relief for the poor, distressed, underprivileged, or for combating community deterioration," he added.

Underlying every great vision is a well-thought out plan.

The playbook is the primer for starting and operating a real SERVICE chapter. "The real SERVICE working model is very structured, organized, and can seem complex, but when all of the details are melted down it is a very simple, cut and dried three-step process that only needs to be renewed after every semester," he said.

According to Braman, the three steps are even easy to remember: communicate monthly with real SERVICE, Inc., via the chapter's contact person, ensure the chapter is acting in accordance with its working model, advertising and recruitment game plans, and renew those three at the end of every semester.

The response on Kettering's campus so far has been very positive. The B-section group initiated an annual Relay for Life event on campus to benefit the American Cancer Society. In only their second year the event raised more than $25,000. The A-section group has plans for both large and small-scale events in the 2007-08 academic year.

"The average college student today seems to be seeking an altruistic outlet," said Braman. "They are looking for opportunities that will benefit themselves or their community, the days of joining a club or organization just for the sake of joining something slowly seems to be melting away," he said.

"Today's generation is more likely to ask 'why' instead of saying 'why not?' They are hungry to improve their surroundings and are aware of how they are hurting them," he said.

Responding to the growing altruistic trend on college campuses the real SERVICE board of directors is working to expand the organization's reach beyond Kettering's campus. The University of Michigan-Flint campus is already working with Braman on starting a chapter and efforts are being made to get real SERVICE chapters started at Grand Valley State University and Wayne State University.

We are also working on securing tax exempt status," Braman said. His long-term goal is for real SERVICE to be a world-wide organization. "In order for the real SERVICE board of directors to meet our 20-year milestone goal, we need to begin building the number of volunteers within real SERVICE, Inc., as well as building an endowment," said Braman.

Currently, real SERVICE, Inc. has eight board of directors, and a four-member advisory committee. "The volunteers that we are seeking now will be part of a real SERVICE, Inc., volunteer program, whose members will work with the board on current projects and current needs," Braman said. He estimates the time commitment to be approximately a half hour per week throughout the course of a year. But he hopes involvement in real SERVICE will be the start of life-long civic involvement and volunteerism for most members.

"We want all of our group members and leaders to continue volunteering and continue to use their gifts to serve beyond their college years," he said. "real SERVICE has the potential to quench the thirst for service, as well as to build ambition in those who feel driven to pitch-in with their community."

Toward that end and following the direction of his internal compass, Braman is walking his talk - or at least doing his best to walk his talk. "My mission is life is to glorify God," he said, "it's simple to state but implementing it is the difficult part." The difficulty is a shared burden because he's got his friends to give him a little help along the way.

"The seven volunteers who currently work with me on the board are an exceptional group of young professionals, each with tremendous talents," he said. "They have all excelled academically, four were Kettering LEADERS Fellows, seven were nominated to the Kettering Robot Society, five were President's Medalists, four were Sobey Scholars and three were Eagle Scouts. I can't imagine being more proud of the real SERVICE, Inc. board of directors," Braman said. His board is made of all Kettering University graduates, including: Jon Kowalski, Scott Porter, Chaz Ott, Matt Hilgendorf, Suzanne Kayser, Will Rein and Christina Smith.

For more information about real SERVICE, contact Braman at braman@real-service.org.

Written by Dawn Hibbard