In the beginning, there was Sima: An interview with CCASL’s Founder

“I walked in here with the belief that service learning and community based education could make a difference in learning outcomes for students, in their lives, identities, and who they wanted to become. I came here with that thirst from the very beginning.”

– Sima Thorpe, Founder of CCASL

Two beat-up metal desks, a 286 computer with no mouse and a DOS operating system, two student employees and one established service program: humble beginnings for any department, but that didn’t matter to Sima Thorpe. With a vision to transform students through service and justice initiatives, Sima began the work that would become her legacy. 20 years later, the Center for Community Action and Service Learning (CCASL, pronounced “Castle”) has changed the lives of thousands of Gonzaga students and significantly impacted the Spokane community.

A picture of Dorothy Day hanging in the original CCASL Offices. The photo is still in Sima's office today

A picture of Dorothy Day hanging in the original CCASL Offices. The photo is still in Sima’s office today

In 1994, Sue Weitz, Vice President for Student Life, had a vision to actualize Gonzaga University’s mission to educate students as men and women for others. She established Gonzaga Volunteer Services and found a kindred spirit when she hired Sima as the first coordinator of the department that would eventually become CCASL. Sima credits the university mission statement with bringing her here, saying: “Even though I’m not a Catholic, I really believe in the mission of Jesuit education and what Gonzaga’s mission says about how we should live, and how we should think, and how we should act. So I really felt like this was the place I could be myself, be the person I was, and embrace the work in front of me for that mission.”

When Sima walked into the cramped office in the Crosby Student Center for the first time, she noticed a picture on the wall of Dorothy Day, the Catholic social activist and founder of the Catholic Worker Movement. As Sima learned more about Day, she became an inspiration for her. That same picture still hangs in Sima’s office today.

In the beginning, there wasn’t much established for service at Gonzaga, so Sima immediately organized a community service fair, calling everyone she knew, to see what they could tell her about recruiting volunteers. Three weeks after Sima started working, twenty seven organizations came to campus for the first Service Fair in the Crosby Student Center. Today Service Fair is a biannual event, taking place at the beginning of each semester with over fifty community partners in attendance, helping students connect with the community in partnerships that match student interest and community need.

CCASL Founder, Sima Thorpe, and Career Center Director, Mary Heitkemper, at the first service fair

CCASL Founder, Sima Thorpe, and Career Center Director, Mary Heitkemper, at the first service fair

Sima’s roots in community based education run deep. Her path to Gonzaga reveals a clear belief in the value of education and working with students, along with a keen understanding of the importance of community partners and well-formed relationships for addressing critical needs and social justice issues. This dual interest in education and social justice dates aback to her college days at the University of Oregon. As an undergraduate, Sima was involved in one of the first service-learning programs in the country called Escape Field Studies, where she was a work study assistant and student leader. After graduation, she taught English to high school and middle school students at a Native American school in Oregon and then on a reservation in Coeur d’Alene. For the five and a half years prior to coming to Gonzaga, she worked as a legal advocate for the poor. Sima came to GU with a wealth of community contacts and a vision. “I really had that passion and thirst and belief that this was so important to do in higher education at Gonzaga in particular.”

When Sima arrived at Gonzaga, the Gonzaga Volunteer Services office had only one partnership with a local Non-profit- the L’Arche community. Through this partnership, student volunteers had the opportunity to work with individuals with developmental disabilities at the Way of the Heart Retreat. Over the years, Way of the Heart has expanded into Gonzaga University Specialized Recreation (GUSR), a program with over 50 community participants, 80 student volunteers and 8 student leaders. For more information on GUSR, check out

Sima made it her mission to connect with more community organizations. She set up a meeting with Logan Elementary School Principal Pat Lynass to see what kind of relationship could be formed; Pat challenged Sima, lamenting that through the years faculty had come to do research, and student groups had come to volunteer, and then she had never seen them again. Sima recalls Lynass’ message being: You have a tremendous resource and our kids are some of the poorest in the state of Washington with many challenges. These kids are having trouble achieving all the academic goals they need to achieve, so don’t come back here unless you have a proposal that is going to last and can put your students with our kids in a sustainable way.

Sima started reading research on mentoring. She visited Seattle University, the University of Puget Sound and other private and public schools to see what they were doing. In 1994, informed by her research, Sima designed the Campus Kids program, which still exists today. She wrote for and was awarded a grant that provided them with enough funding to hire a graduate student and cover program costs. She wrote a four page proposal and presented it to Pat not knowing what kind of reception she would get. Pat loved it, and agreed to help Sima navigate the Spokane Public School system; Pat was a highly respected principal and her support of Campus Kids made the collaboration possible. Stevens Elementary was brought on board as a second school, and Campus Kids was launched! Over the past 20 years, CCASL’s mentoring focus has grown into 6 award winning programs serving 685 youth in 13 public schools. To learn more about campus kids, visit

Always willing to roll up her sleeves to get the work done, Sima is seen here working in CCASL's Ruellen-Day Community Garden

Always willing to roll up her sleeves to get the work done, Sima is seen here working in CCASL’s Ruellen-Day Community Garden

Another early program was April’s Angels. Together with Kristen Whitehead, a first year GU student, Sima raised funds, recruited students and identified Trinity Elementary School as the first partner. Hoping that 20-30 students would show up, Sima and Sister Laura Michels waited with their one van on the morning of the event. When over two hundred Gonzaga students arrived, they knew they were on to something. 20 years later, April’s Angels has grown into the Zag Volunteer Corps, a year-long service program focused on one-day service projects with partners like Habitat for Humanity and the Lands Council.

Under Sima’s leadership, CCASL grew from its humble beginnings to an organization with fifteen staff members, two locations and seventeen programs. Today, CCASL works with over 3,000 student volunteers and 100 student leaders. In partnership with over 100 community partners, CCASL students serve over 75,000 hours each year.

Sima celebrating CCASL's 20th Anniversary

Sima celebrating CCASL’s 20th Anniversary

Today, Sima serves as Student Development’s Senior Director of External Relations and Assessment, a role which utilizes Sima’s relationship building skills with the community beyond Gonzaga. Her commitment to community engagement remains strong, as evidenced by her current leadership of the Asset Based Community Development initiative at Gonzaga, a project bringing together faculty, staff, students and community members to identify the assets of the Spokane community in order to strengthen communities and develop closer relationships between the university and community.

She remains passionate about the future of CCASL and all Gonzaga students: “We have students with the privilege to graduate with a degree from this institution. So how are they citizens in the world? How will they make it a better place?”


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