A Bates student wins an award for her tireless volunteer work.

LEWISTON – Two years ago, Caroline Coffey spent her summer vacation helping out at a camp for critically ill children and their families.

Last year, she spent her summer days at the Jason Program, a Saco-based group that provides medical, emotional and spiritual care to critically ill and dying children, their families and caretakers.

In between, the Bates College senior volunteered as a college Emergency Medical Service worker and as a face painter during a monthly gathering for foster families. She helped coordinate a mentoring program at Longley Elementary School, organized a reading buddy program at Montello Elementary School and established a group to spend time with kids admitted to St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center. All while carrying a full course load as a psychology major.

The 22-year-old from Kennebunk believed it was nothing special.

“I don’t really feel like I’ve done that much,” she said.

But a panel of judges disagreed.

The Maine Campus Compact, an organization of Maine colleges and universities, has awarded Coffey a Student Heart and Soul Award for her volunteer and service-learning work.

“Caroline has not only provided wonderful service to her community, but she’s making a significant contribution to the world,” said the Center for Service Learning’s Associate Director, Peggy Rotundo, who nominated Coffey for the award.

The oldest of three kids and a longtime champion of children, Coffey wanted to become a pediatrician when she began at Bates four years ago. But her interest in studying natural science waned during her freshman year.

“I just couldn’t see myself doing that,” she said. “I just fell in love with psychology and I never expected that.”

While she volunteered as a campus EMS worker and as a mentor at Longley Elementary, she began working at the Bates College Center for Service Learning. A class service learning project got her involved with kids at Auburn Middle School. Under another, she recruited fellow Bates students and coordinated a reading buddy program at Montello Elementary.

That summer, with help from a grant from the Service Learning Center, Coffey went to Camp Sunshine. There she spent her days playing with critically ill children and forging a connection with Camp Sunshine teenagers over pickup games of basketball. She spent her nights on call for camp emergencies.

The following summer, she went to the Jason Program.

“She is a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful young woman,” said Kate Eastman, executive director of the program. “What a gift she has been to us.”

At the Jason Program, Coffey did everything from filing to respite work. Her friendly smile and unfailing empathy made her a favorite with the kids.

“The families loved her,” Eastman said. “They kept asking when am I going to get another Caroline.”

Last fall, she started a program at St. Mary’s that brought Bates students to read and play with children in the hospital’s behavioral ward. After her first excited campus-wide e-mail to recruit participants, 50 people volunteered.

Sue Martin, who helped supervise Coffey at the Center for Service Learning, said she’s been impressed with Coffey’s engaging, down-to-earth manner and willingness to do anything that needs to be done.

“She can sort of go into a setting and listen and understand what the issues and needs are,” she said.

But Coffey, who has told few people about her award, said she doesn’t understand the accolades.

“I’ve gotten so much out of everything that I’ve done. I feel kind of silly getting recognized for something I’ve gotten so much out of,” she said.

While her work can be “emotionally challenging” Coffey said, she also finds it uplifting.

“It’s where I get my energy from. It’s where I get my drive and creativity from,” she said. “I just sort of feed off it.”

Coffey was one of more than 30 Maine undergraduates who were nominated for the Heart and Soul Award. Only a five won. All received their honors at a ceremony in Augusta earlier this month.

Coffey will graduate from Bates in May and will attend Boston College’s graduate program in social work this fall. She is planning a career working with families with terminally and critically ill children.

After four years at Bates, Coffey has only one regret: leaving her attempts to start a reading program at Central Maine Medical Center.

Said Coffey, “I wish I could have gotten that one started, too.”

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