The spirit of community outreach at Hollins manifests itself in so many ways.
Some of the examples include Students Helping Achieve Rewarding Experiences (SHARE), which recruits and places student volunteers with a variety of community agencies and organizations; Sandusky Service House, a campus residence hall where students are required to perform at least ten hours of volunteer work each month and promote service activities on campus and in the community; and the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, which seeks to serve the Hollins and surrounding community through volunteerism and leadership presence.
The Hollins commitment to helping others added a new chapter last month when Maria Vest ’21 became a volunteer at the fire department in the nearby town of Troutville in Botetourt County.
“I spend my free time at the firehouse,” the biology major and chemistry minor from southern Maryland explained.
Vest’s interest in becoming a first responder stemmed from her involvement with the Hollins Outdoor Program (HOP). It began her first year when she took part in HOP’s Wilderness Orientation Program, a five-day excursion that blends instruction in outdoor living skills with activities such as canoeing and a high ropes course. In subsequent years, Vest has led the Wilderness Orientation Program as well as other HOP trips, and ultimately she became interested in completing her Outdoor Leadership Certificate. Part of the qualification for the certificate is earning the Wilderness First Responder designation, which provides the tools to make critical medical and evacuation decisions in remote locations. This January, Vest and her roommates traveled to Brevard, North Carolina, to complete the nine-day, 80-hour course.
After the intense training, Vest was eager “to do rescue/EMT kinds of things. But here in Roanoke, the vast majority of those positions are paid. I wasn’t qualified to compete with people who get paid to do that kind of work.”
HOP Director Jon Guy Owens was driving home one day when he saw a billboard advertising that the Troutville Volunteer Fire Department was looking for volunteers. Vest had suddenly found “the next best thing. I applied on their website, and after an interview I joined the department. I had to go through a training process as well as a background check. Then, I learned all there is about the different trucks, equipment, and procedures.”
Vest coordinates her service as a fire department volunteer around her academic responsibilities at Hollins. “I have a couple of late days of classes, but on my lighter days I’m usually finished around 1 p.m. I’ll go to the fire station for anywhere from two to eight hours. If things are quiet, I’ll sit and do homework. But if the bell rings, I’ll throw on my gear and hop on the truck.”
Vest is not technically a firefighter yet, but she’s hoping to take classes to earn that certification this May. Nevertheless, in the meantime she will play a vital role should anything happen. “I will be working outside with everything from helping access fire hydrants to giving the firefighters the tools they need. I had to learn every single tool that is on every truck, where it’s located and how it works. My focus will be on how I can be helpful and doing whatever they tell me.”
The Troutville Volunteer Fire Department may be located in a very small town (the U.S. Census Bureau estimates the population at less than 430 people), but that doesn’t diminish its importance and skillset as first responders. Because of the department’s proximity to Interstate 81, “they get called into a lot of vehicle accidents to help ensure traffic safety or even to extract people from cars and trucks. They have giant saws to cut guardrails and hydraulic tools to remove metal from vehicles or open doors,” Vest said. “They also monitor a section of the Appalachian Trail and help rescue people who have hiked too far out or were underprepared. That’s more of what I am trained to do with the Wilderness First Responder certificate, how to react and provide the best care possible when you’re in a situation with limited resources. They even rescue large animals – if a cow or a horse gets stuck in a ditch, it’s the fire department that gets them out.”
Vest has tremendous respect for her fellow fire department volunteers. “The people who do this, they’re really good people and they care. There are many interesting things you don’t ever think about where they help the community.”
She feels the same admiration for the colleagues she’s established through HOP, beginning with Owens. “Jon Guy has been a great advisor and mentor over the past four years. He is such a huge asset in what makes HOP, HOP. He’s so involved and really cares about his students, and his enthusiasm plays a big part in making HOP so much fun.” Working closely with Owens her sophomore year was part of her motivation for saving Outdoor Athletics, Hollins’ club for whitewater racing and rock climbing. The club began floundering when all its officers were studying abroad, so Vest jumped into the leadership void. Starting with just four members, she helped make Outdoor Athletics vibrant again, and continues as club president today. “We worked so hard to spread the awareness of it,” she recalled.
Vest also praises Dina Bennett, owner of Mountain Shepherd Adventure School in Catawba, Virginia, where Vest took a J-Term course her sophomore year called Survival in the Modern World. Bennett subsequently offered her a summer job with Mountain Shepherd’s GEMS (Girls Empowered by Mountain Shepherd) program. “I taught middle school girls how to grow with courage, confidence, and compassion. We have all different levels, and each year they get to come back to have another experience. We did everything from basic survival training to hiking on the Appalachian Trail, caving, rock climbing, and canoeing on the New River.”
In addition to the connections she’s made with Owens and Bennett, Vest is grateful for the friendships she’s formed through HOP. “They became the people that were really most influential in my Hollins experience and cared about me the most.” When Vest had to take a year off from school due to illness, “all my friends that I made through HOP reached out to me. Dina and Jon Guy, they were huge in that part of my life.”
Vest had originally planned to pursue a pre-vet track at Hollins, but dealing with her health challenges and “getting involved in that world made me think about medical for people. So, I’m applying for graduate programs in biochemical and molecular medical biology.” This summer, she hopes to engage in lab work through a partnership between Hollins and Virginia Tech that enables Hollins students to take part in VT’s Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship program. It’s a demanding educational and career path, but Vest is confident that the influence of her HOP experience will continue to provide balance in her life.
“Being involved with HOP has made me focus on the things that truly make me happy. I am good at science and I enjoy it, but it’s definitely a lot more fun to be out hiking than organizing molecular structures.”
Top photo: Maria Vest ’21 (left) and HOP Director Jon Guy Owens canoeing on the New River during a HOP Fall Break camping trip in 2019.