In the months leading up to the 2014 Honors Institute, first-time Faculty Scholar Kari Kahler, who serves as Michigan Regional Coordinator, wondered how she would create a meaningful experience for her seminar group, composed of regional officers from around the world. As it turned out, an unplanned experience would change the lives of the members of Seminar Group 9, and they would learn valuable lessons far beyond the campus of Washington University.
“My biggest take-away from Honors Institute 2014 was to experience the incredible passion of Phi Theta Kappa members honoring one of their own with genuine compassion, incredible leadership and thoughtful action,” Kahler said. “Sometimes, even seasoned leaders learn to step back and let events unfold.”
Those events began to unfold on Wednesday, June 18, as part of an Honors Institute outing in St. Louis. Phi Theta Kappa had organized a riverboat ride along the Mississippi with Gateway Cruises. The students had learned about the history of the riverfront, including the courthouse made famous by the Dred Scott decision and the landmark Gateway Arch. As the buses filled with Honors Institute participants arrived for the cruise, they were re-directed due to construction on the riverfront in front of the riverboat entrance.
Janet Walker, a Georgia Regional Officer who uses a walker, and Denise Keller, Indiana Regional President who uses a cane, found themselves dropped off several blocks away from the dock with the rest of their seminar group.
Sarah Schutt, Greater Northwest Regional Vice President for District III, searched for a safe route to the riverboat, but unfortunately the only way down was a steep, unshaded staircase. Keller was able to make it, but Walker was struggling to descend the crumbling steps with the help of Indiana Regional Public Relations Officer Denise Lynch. Due to the 94-degree heat, the mile-long walk and the numerous steps, Walker and Lynch missed the 1:30 p.m. cruise.
Schutt had agreed to go ahead to request that a wheelchair be brought to help Walker get to the dock in time for the next scheduled cruise at 3 p.m. She texted back to Lynch that a wheelchair was on the way.
“I am so amazed by the strength of character that Janet and the two Denises showed,” Schutt said. “They are amazing women, and I am so happy to know them.”
A riverboat cruise employee returned shortly with the wheelchair and, according to Lynch, was very helpful, professional and courteous in helping Walker get to the cruise. However, she added that the wheelchair provided was unstable, leaving Walker very nervous that she would tip over.
“The wheelchair almost got away from him three times although I was bracing it on the downslope side,” Lynch explained.
After arriving at the boat, Lynch insisted upon giving the riverboat employee a $20 tip, although he said they owed him nothing. At first he refused, but she encouraged him to donate the money to charity if he wasn’t allowed to keep it.
Walker and Lynch then enjoyed the riverboat ride and located Phi Theta Kappa staff members, who helped make arrangements to assist Walker back to the buses. The two members spent the rest of the afternoon exchanging ideas about their chapters.
“I picked her brain and got two pages of notes filled with great ideas to promote Phi Theta Kappa, increase membership and member involvement,” Lynch said. “I told Janet that it turned out to be a blessing to spend the afternoon with her, since she was a really nice person and had many great ideas.”
That evening as Seminar Group 9 shared their experiences of the day, Walker took her turn to speak and told fellow members about her day.
“Because of my experience, I wanted to pay it forward by getting the riverboat landing a better wheelchair to assist others who are disabled,” she said. As the group became somewhat angry as she told of her experience, Walker said, “I told the group it did nothing to get mad or frustrated, but I could help find a way to help others in the future.”
“Our seminar group was overwhelmed with her thoughtfulness and how she chose to create a better experience for others rather than blame the company or wallow in self-pity about her afternoon,” Kahler said. “They reached into their pockets and shared with Janet everything they had.”
Kahler explained that Brandi Husch, Regional Vice President for Phi Theta Kappa’s Southern District of Illinois, was so moved that she inspired many attending the Honors Institute to join in the cause and was instrumental in the amount of money collected.
Walker promised to research wheelchair prices and report to the group at Friday’s seminar meeting. By Friday evening the group had collected more than $755.
“Janet Walker is an extremely amazing individual who has forever changed how I look at certain situations in my life,” Husch said. “The whole story represents why I love Phi Theta Kappa so much, and I am honored and humbled to be a part of it.”
As the group debriefed during the Friday evening seminar session, they were joined by Dr. Nancy Rieves, CEO of the Phi Theta Kappa Foundation, and turned the money over to her.
Upon returning from Honors Institute, Rieves contacted Gateway Cruises and explained what had transpired. Karen Bolinger, Director of Sales and Marketing responded. “Please accept our apologies for the challenges students faced in getting around the riverfront,” she said. “Second, what a neat bunch of students – rallying around their friend!”
Based on this experience, Bolinger shared that Gateway Cruises will internally review their equipment and protocols to ensure they are able to provide better assistance for this type of scenario in the future.
“Please redirect the funds to your organization,” Bolinger said. “While the students’ intent is admirable, their efforts should be directed to support your mission.”
Rieves explained that the funds collected by Seminar Group 9 will now be directed to the Oberndorf Lifeline to Completion Scholarship and will be awarded to a member with disability needs who applies.
“This is a wonderful example of how seminar groups pull together to help one another,” said Susan Edwards, Dean of Academic Affairs and Honors Programs. “The bonding that takes place at Honors Institute represents Phi Theta Kappa fellowship at its best.”
“We hear wonderful stories about paying it forward,” Kahler added. “But for Seminar Group 9, we were able to live it!”