Whether working as an RA in Bodien or leading youth at non-profits, Bethel senior Meg Thorison puts her heart into anything that falls into her hands.
By Alicia Dahl
The thing that strikes most about Meg Thorison is her voice. The smoothly crafted tone shows itself through wide hand motions, a big smile and a booming voice that guides a Bethel Buddies group of K-12th graders in a faith-based activity. This voice that echoes instructions and encouragement through the hallways on Wednesday nights is one that showers hope, encouragement and grace that her teammates, the volunteers she works with and the freshmen she leads on her floor in Bodien Hall can see as she talks about her Bethel Buddies and the youth at TreeHouse Next.
Then you notice her personality – a personality that radiates trust when she kneels down with students who reflect on their thoughts when brainstorming a mindmap. It is a personality of strength and confidence, even when she was handed the role to take over Bethel Buddies with nothing but a year of volunteer experience.
This is a story of a college student dedicated to ministry and providing hope for youth in Bethel Buddies and for teens at TreeHouse Next. She’s the kind of full-time student, non-profit working athlete who runs a 24:24 on a 6000-meter cross country race, sets specific time aside to meet with the girls on her floor from Bodien, preps for work and other commitments and is still ready to lead a presentation for a meeting on the fly. It is a story about opportunities and fulfilling her dreams and the dreams of youth.
It is Wednesday evening, October 9th, and Thorison, a senior missional ministries and psychology double major from Cedarburg, Wisc., has her back leaned up against a white pillar with one leg bent like a flamingo balancing on the support behind her. At the front of the room at Bethel University, a poster with a rainbow of colors displays the fruits of the spirit. The high school students make Thorison laugh as they perform skits from the lesson with their buddies, and use her as an example of what to do and what not to do in different scenarios when reflecting on the fruit of kindness.
About 35 students between kindergarten and 12th grade paired with 34 Bethel University student volunteers, led by three staff members who come every Wednesday night for fall and spring semesters from 6-8 p.m. As a freshman, Thorison was a volunteer for Bethel Buddies. The third-grader she met freshman year is still in the program, along with his sisters.
“[His] energy allowed me to have tons of pure, light-hearted fun amidst college stress,” she said. “His curiosity allowed me to also feel cared about, which I wasn’t expecting from a 3rd grade boy, and his eagerness inspired me to be eager about my own learning and growing.”
At the end of her freshman year, the senior leaders of Bethel Buddies needed replacements to take over the program, but only one volunteer would take the job.
“It was basically handed to me in shambles,” Thorison said. “Fake it ‘til you make it.”
During her sophomore year, Thorison focused on piecing together a curriculum by working with Union Gospel Mission, finding resources and reflecting on what those who led her freshman year did to run the program. When the students arrive now, they eat with their buddy in Bethel’s dining center, have unstructured connect time, group activities and the opportunity to get homework help.
Now, at the beginning of her senior year, Thorison sees growth in the program. She sees the impact that it has on the students and volunteers through the relationships they form, one-on-one attention for academics and growth and community in faith-based activities.
Associate Dean of Christian Formation and Church Relations, Matt Runion, has worked with Thorison and seen her leadership move the program forward.
“She has a ministry heart that gets mashed with an incredible ability to organize, plan ahead and create administrative systems that work,” Runion said.
In the past few years, the Union Gospel Mission has seen major changes after Asian Ministries was closed last fall and the Ober Community Center, which has been in operation for 80 years, is to close December 2019. Even though Thorison felt the pain of this because of the people and families she knew, she took it in stride.
After a couple of weeks of the two organizations working together, things are starting to seem as though they will work out, and a large part of this success is due to Thorison’s ability to use her existing relationships with Bethel, Union Gospel Mission and TreeHouse to respond with different strategies.
“Anyone working with a nonprofit will admit that you have to stay flexible,” Runion said. “It takes a unique student leader to thrive in that environment.”
As the student program director, Thorison said the goal is to “get kids to dream bigger” by working with the three pillars of Bethel Buddies: discipleship, friendship and academics.
Sophomore nursing major Lizzy Carson and sophomore elementary education major Nora Read are coordinators who help direct activities for Bethel Buddies.
“A lot of kids don’t get to see the college experience, so this is a way for them to be themselves and see this space and have college role models,” Carson said.
Carson and Runion have seen Thorison do work behind the scenes to create curriculum and activities and also get to know the students personally and empower the mentors by leading them so that they can lead the kids.
“She loves people generally, but she also loves people particularly,” Runion said. “The program has flourished under her leadership because of her ability to plan, follow through and because of her deep knowledge of how God works.”
Besides working with Bethel Buddies during the school year, Thorison can be found running a race in cross country or track and working as an RA in Bodien.
Adam Dvorak, the resident director for Bodien, has worked with Meg for the past two years. In his time working with her, Dvorak said that she has “a genuine heart; always caring for others.”
During Thorison’s junior year, the girls on her floor went to her room to talk, cry or simply take a nap. Realizing that she is only one person and couldn’t do it all, she created “Life Groups” on her floor.
“Meg formed girls into groups on her floor and they intentionally invested in each other,” Dvorak said. “She was pouring into the leaders of the groups as well as being involved and equipping them, while casting a vision to help them.”
This vision was to connect, grow together, get to know each other and care for each other, whether that was through getting meals, doing a Bible study or just going bowling together.
During homecoming this fall, Thorison sat in Bodien’s shack, a community room in Bethel dorms, when she instinctively “glided” over to a girl who was crying on the couch. Thorison moved in, kneeled down and put her hand on the girl’s elbow to establish a connection. In a room full of people, she was able to have an intimate interaction with one person by physically and mentally getting down to her level and figuring out what she needed.
“Meg has the ability to connect, diffuse, and is highly trusted,” Dvorak said. “She is easy to confide in, and that is because she is such a caring listener.”
Outside of her life at Bethel, Thorison works for a nonprofit called TreeHouse.
TreeHouse is a faith-based organization that has support groups, lessons on faith, mentoring and academic and career support for youth. Their mission is to end hopelessness among teens. During her sophomore year, recruiters from TreeHouse came to Bethel and Thorison applied, and was later hired as an intern for the career and college readiness program called TreeHouse Next.
One of Thorison’s favorite moments from TreeHouse Next occurred while running a workshop day for recent high school graduates in the program. In this workshop, Thorison led a mind-mapping activity in which the teens thought of dreams for their futures by drawing a mountain and figuring out what they could do to get to the top and meet those goals.
Thorison strives to instill hope, empowerment and connections through relationships in her work with nonprofits, and with the freshman on her floor in Bodien.
“Everything that I have been a part of has just fallen into my life, and I have taken it, and learned from it,” Thorison said.