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Justin Grider, a senior at St. Mary's College in Moraga, Calif., is photographed on Sunday, July 31, 2011. He recently returned from a six-week service project learning fellowship with the Valley Christian Conference in Palmer, Alaska, working with homeless and marginally housed individuals to help provide basic needs such as food, shelter, jobs and health care. (Jim Stevens/Staff)

The call to action can sound a little faint at first -- sign up to serve a meal in a soup kitchen, or volunteer at a local food bank.

And then, community service mushrooms.

Such was the case for Saint Mary's College senior Justin Grider, who spent six weeks this summer in Palmer, Alaska, as part of the college's Catholic Institute for Lasallian Social Action (CILSA).

The Concord resident, like his peers at the Moraga campus, initially discovered his dedication to community service on a small scale and then heeded more substantive calls to reach out.

"It's about addressing issues of poverty, oppression and justice," says CILSA director Marshall Welch, "and this is really designed to give students an experience in faith, service and community."

Brenda Martinez' response to the call was also gradual, starting by attending rallies and signing petitions for causes she supported. And, at Saint Mary's, the incoming sophomore joined the Social Justice Club.

This summer, the Antioch resident's commitment intensified as she participated in a six-week, CILSA immersion program, the Micah Project.

Martinez lived with two other students in West Oakland and commuted on BART to San Francisco's Tenderloin district, where she worked with the General Assistance Advocacy Project.

She served as an advocate for the area's homeless and mentally ill, assisting them with securing food stamps, benefits and public housing, clearing warrants and mediating between various public agencies and GAAP clients.


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"It was one of those experiences that really opened my eyes to what's around me ... I'll be a lot more involved because I was exposed to this," she says, noting her subsequent signing on with homeless coalition protests. "I found a vocation for social justice and I plan to carry that out."

Grider, prior to his Alaska experience, spent a January term a couple of years ago in the Dominican Republic as part of the Kids Alive program, where they visited orphanages and played soccer with at-risk, abused youth who were begging on the street.

"It was about letting kids be kids. That was the launching pad for what I wanted to do later in life," he says.

Grider spent the following summer teaching English and math to incarcerated teenage boys in the Philippines, where they were taken out of jail as they awaited trial and given the opportunity to take classes, plant gardens, go to church and craft rosaries, he describes.

Sometimes meeting an inspiring person proves pivotal when it comes to furthering that pull toward helping others.

For Grider, one such individual -- and an enduring friendship that was forged -- is with Phyllis Sullivan, an octogenarian who has long advocated for the indigent and those with mental and physical disabilities in the Matanuska Valley, an hour north of Anchorage, where temperatures drop to 30 below zero in the winter.

Sullivan was part of a coalition of churches, the Valley Christian Conference, which had identified the area's social problems, be it homelessness, poverty, mental illness and the need for specialized housing.

During his time in Alaska, Grider worked alongside volunteers at Turn a Leaf, a nonprofit thrift store that provides medical equipment to low-income families, and helped out at the local food pantry.

He got to know the clients living in the Daybreak program's residential facilities, as he shadowed social workers who were assisting them through the maze of Social Security and Medicaid, all with the goal to "empower people to empower themselves," he says.

"People I've worked with, they've devoted their lives to this -- helping others," says Grider. "That's the purpose for me. It's not just giving handouts. They're doing more than scratching the surface. It's not only humbling, but it's a fuel. It helps me want to be a better person."

Welch notes that Grider's and Martinez' approach to their summer fellowships is consistent with the ethic that underscores CILSA's outreach.

"(They're) very engaged in trying to make a difference out in the community. (They're) not coming in with the notion that they have all the answers," says Welch.

"You need to be very humble going into these neighborhoods, to work with (the residents) side-by-side. You're not coming in and saving them."