Ann Schwab still remembers the shy smile of a young student she mentored decades ago as an undergraduate at Chico State.
In the few months they spent together, they flew kites in Bidwell Park, worked on homework and baked cookies in the girl’s Chapman neighborhood home, and shared countless laughs.
“It got me out of my shell and made me realize the world was a lot bigger than I was,” Schwab said of her service through Community Action Volunteers in Education (CAVE).
The experience also prompted reflection.
“I imagined what a difference it would have made in my life if I had a college-age mentor. … I lost my mother when I was young, and kind of felt a little lost and alone,” she recalled. “I hope I made a difference for that young woman—it made a difference for me, to see how easy it was to give a little bit of my time.”
If “Life is for Learning,” as CAVE’s motto proclaims, there is no better classroom than community service, said Schwab (BA, Psychology, ’79).
Since CAVE’s founding in 1966, more than 50,000 students have donated almost 3 million hours in 93 programs. The impact? Enriching the lives of nearly 1 million individuals in the North State community.
As the largest student-led nonprofit organization at Chico State prepares to celebrate its bicentennial this fall, alumni say they have a lot to celebrate.
“Students who come to us have an interest in giving back to their community,” said Schwab, who, 35 years after participating in CAVE, is now the program’s director. “What they find is what the community is teaching them about themselves, about what they value, about what they can learn.”
CAVE’s mission is to provide Chico State students with meaningful volunteer opportunities, to develop student leaders, and to serve a broad base of community needs. Its current 15 student-run programs serve children, older adults, and people with special needs, as well as animals, the environment, and other causes.
“It helped me open my eyes and think about people other than myself, which at 20 is all I was doing,” said Drew Murphy (BS, Business Administration, ’07), who dedicated his time at CAVE working with special needs and other students in K–12 classrooms.
For many, the service-learning program is not just a part of their Chico Experience—it defines it.
CAVE alum Leanne Mixa Bettin (BS, Recreation Administration, ’03), who volunteered in state institutions and at an environmental school, among other programs, said the experiential learning helped her build confidence and a variety of transferable skills.
“I often say that I got my degree in CAVE,” she said.
It all started 50 years ago, when student Tim Tregarthen (BA, Economics, ’67) began to pay attention to the number of area youth who were struggling in school. He wondered if he could forge some kind of partnership between the University and the local public school system, pairing college students with elementary youth to give them one-on-one attention to support stronger academic success.
“I was thinking of it from two perspectives. One, from the standpoint of children who clearly needed help, and two, from the standpoint of finding an opportunity for students at Chico State to be of service to the community,” he said. “I thought that CAVE would be a nice solution to both problems.”
The pilot project, launched in 1966, was a tutorial project that paired 20 Chico State students with children from the local community.
The following year, Ron Luyet (BA, Speech and Drama, ’67) took over the program and it expanded to 200 students.
Luyet added an adult education program to tutor illiterate adults and provide them with skills needed to find employment. By 1968, three more programs were added—the Big Brother program to work with local children, a weekend project working with developmentally disabled children at Napa State Hospital, and intense, interpersonal communication workshops for students.
Luyet recently shared with Schwab his memories of the national tenor during CAVE’s early years, with the Vietnam War, race riots, and the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy.
“It was an ugly time,” Schwab said. “He said that CAVE was the one positive thing that was happening.”
By 1968, 350 students volunteered, and CAVE continued to grow. Today, about 2,000 students volunteer each year, providing an estimated 50,000 hours of service and receiving an invaluable education in return.
“CAVE was the greatest part of my college experience,” said Fawn Ruby (BA, English, ’06; Credential, ’08), who was involved with youth and tutorial programs. “(It) gave me the best opportunities to get involved in the community, showed me the importance of service, and taught me outstanding leadership. CAVE helped me choose a career in education. So much of who I am today and values that I live my life by were formed largely by my years on CAVE’s staff.”
Once Tregarthan graduated, he went on to pursue his PhD and teach college in Colorado. He admits he gave little thought to what would happen to his former program or its future until he moved back to California a few years ago and had an itch to look up CAVE online.
“I was stunned. Absolutely stunned,” he said. “To continue to grow spectacularly for 50 years is mind-blowing.”
A Growing Program
Through the years, CAVE has initiated dozens of additional programs—all at the request of students. They have counseled both student draftees and conscientious objectors, taught community classes on myriad subjects, and hosted weekend immersion trips. They have also held voter registration, tax assistance, and English as a second language classes, aided the homeless, and built homes in disadvantaged communities after natural disasters.
By 1990, CAVE had garnered the attention of the White House and received a letter from President George H. W. Bush, who wrote, “Word has reached me of your outstanding record of community service. I congratulate you on your achievements [and] commend you for making a difference in the life of your community.”
Not only was CAVE one of the first programs of its kind in a university setting and the first in the California State University system, but it continues to boast one of the longest tenures.
Those who work in the CAVE office usually spend three to four semesters there. An estimated 25 percent of participants will volunteer at least twice, while another 25 percent will devote much of their college career to CAVE.
Schwab can pinpoint many reasons why CAVE has thrived at Chico State, but chief among them are the campus’ proximity to the community—including three elementary schools within a one-mile radius—the University’s roots as a training ground for teachers via the Chico Normal School, and its integration with the rest of Chico, she said.
“It’s the ethos of the community. The community values service, and it finds opportunities for students to learn,” Schwab said.
As a student, Deanna Berg had heard the “famous CAVE class talks” that students present across campus, but it wasn’t until her roommate begged her to accompany a weekend trip to Napa State Hospital that she gave the program a try.
“I went with her and I was kind of hooked,” she said. “I just kept volunteering.”
Berg (BA, Liberal Studies, ’95) went on to spend four of her five years at Chico State as a CAVE volunteer. She worked as a classroom aide, befriended former military members at veterans’ homes, and answered a hotline for children who were home alone after school and needed help with homework or someone to talk to.
“I put myself through college, and I made a huge sacrifice to work at CAVE,” Berg said. “Our ‘paycheck’ was enough to buy a pizza every two weeks.”
But the experience, she said, was invaluable.
“The way they supported us and helped me understand what I could be in the world and that I could do this kind of work was really important to me,” she said.
For Berg, it launched a life of service. Her first job out of college was in San Francisco, working with a program that provided all-inclusive care for the elderly. Next, she moved to the University of Mississippi, where she started a student volunteer service learning program based on what she learned at CAVE—engaging students to work hands-on to connect with real-life problems in communities.
She eventually moved on to Portland, where she directed a large Americorps program that recruited students into national service. Then, she got a call from Nan Timmons, CAVE’s then-executive director.
“When I left for Mississippi, I said the only thing that would ever bring me back to California is the opportunity to work at CAVE. I never thought that would happen,” Berg said.
Timmons encouraged her to apply for the director position.
“It was that life-changing phone call,” she said.
Berg spent four years in CAVE’s head role before becoming the first director of civic engagement for the CSU system, and later worked for Hands-On Sacramento, a regional volunteer center working with 900 nonprofits. Today, she is the national director for community engagement at Reading Partners, matching community members with children who are behind in reading. She mobilized more than 14,000 volunteers this year—a number she plans to double in the next three years.
For Berg and many others, CAVE epitomizes the Chico Experience.
“One of the things you experience is a sense of community and a sense of belonging—that these are my people,” she said. “I think that carries through. CAVE is where you belong in that bigger community. You look for that wherever you go, and you know service creates it.”
That was the case for Kimberly Enzensperger (BA, Recreation Administration, ’85), who turned her semesters with CAVE into a 20-year career with the Sonoma Developmental Center, which serves those with developmental disabilities.
And it was true for Charlie Normandin (BS, Business Administration, ’14), who now works on the financial side of nonprofits, a fact he credits to his time in the Alternative Spring Break and other CAVE programs.
“The organization expanded my passion for giving back. CAVE gave me meaningful real-life experiences that took me out of the classroom and into the world,” he said. “It gave me purpose, it gave me a home, and it gave me a family.”
Others speak of personal fulfillment.
“CAVE has helped me personally by exposing me to generous work—the kind of work that comes purely from the heart without the expectation of anything in return,” said Anthony Buscalglia, (BA, Psychology, ’13), of his experiences in elementary classrooms, with veterans,
and in a national park.
Such words resonate strongly with Tregarthen, now 70, whose community service commitment extended far after his Chico State career, including counseling multiple sclerosis patients and ministering to people going through personal crisis.
CAVE’s founder sees great potential for its future.
“The need can only grow as social problems become more serious and more compelling,” he said. “…The opportunity to plunge into the community and be involved in that kind of specific way will be more important and more vital than ever.”
Schwab, too, has no doubt the program has a vibrant future in store.
“It worked for 50 years, it’s going to keep working for another 50 years,” she said. “As long as our volunteering opportunities are meaningful and of value to students and we can guide them in their leadership development, CAVE will continue to be where the magic happens.”