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A group of Valparaiso University students are working to make their community and the world better.

They're also honing their skills in organization and business, taking on real-world experiences as part of the Social Action Leadership Team.

Member Jonah Koetke, a junior from Oak Park, Illinois, majoring in psychology, said the team is extracurricular and run through the university's chapel.

It is a social justice organization, which takes on issues from addiction to education to feeding the hungry.

Some 40 to 50 students participate in the program, which is in its 33rd year, said Kim Franklin, a senior from Rockford, Illinois, studying to be a physician's assistant.

During the first semester, students partake in "passion groups," Koetke said. Members throw out ideas, the issues they are passionate about, and form into smaller groups. Then, he said, they take actions on those passions. Afterward, there is time to reflect and discuss.

Rachel Winkler, a freshman from Florissant, Missouri, and undecided about her major, was co-leader for a group passionate about education. This past fall, they partnered with Compass International Family Center to help teach English as a second language classes, raise funds for the group and provide child care.

"It was a very empowering experience," she said.

Other groups within SALT have participated in high school equivalency tutoring at the Porter County Jail, collected food for local pantries and worked with Prisoner and Community Together to help combat drug abuse and addiction.

During the second semester, the group raises funds and seeks grant applications through its own nonprofit, World Relief Campaign. This year they received 15 applications. They decide which group receives funding based on how it aligns with SALT's mission, sustainability and how it is related to social justice.

This year a $30,000 grant was awarded to WAVES, formerly Engineers Without Borders, which is building a vocational school in Les Cayes, Haiti.

Franklin said they are now raising the $30,000 and have done nine smaller events so far. 

Their big event, the Rhythm Run, will be held beginning at 7 p.m. April 20. The fun run is combined with a music festival. Runners and walkers can follow the course at their leisure, enjoying bands along the way. At the end, the bands will gather for a concert. The cost to join is $25 per person or $20 per person if with a team.

"Our goals for this year include engaging the community much better. The run has primarily been for students, but we are hoping to have the community involved," Franklin said.

The trio said SALT also is a learning experience for students who manage and organize not only the event, but the organization as a whole — from accounting to marketing.

Koetke said SALT has other benefits for the students.

"I have gotten to meet so many people in so many majors," he said.

"It is an outlet allowing us to do things that are outside our normal studies," Franklin said.

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Porter County reporter

Joyce has been a reporter for more than 38 years, including 23 years with The Times. She covers municipal and school government in Valparaiso and Portage.