Great Day of Service engages students in local community

On Saturday, students gathered to participate in the College’s first Great Day of Service, an event that coordinated 11 different community service projects. The day provided an opportunity for volunteers to pick their project of choice, with the overarching aim of fostering a connection with the local community.

Most of the students who participated signed up online last week. Of the 127 students who indicated they would attend, about 85-90 gathered on Saturday to divide into groups. The various projects included working at the Christodora Education Center, Berkshire Family and Individual Resources, the Louison House Family Life Support Center, the Williamstown Youth Center and the Elizabeth Freeman Center. Students also helped with painting the foyer at Mt. Greylock High School, making treats for local residents through the Williams Baking Alliance, painting art for hospitals and running the Bone Marrow Donor Drive. The Adopt-a-Highway road clean-up and the Easter egg hunt, both recurring events that Dodd Neighborhood has always sponsored, provided volunteers with two more options.

Planning for the event began in November when Matt Koven ’09 and the Lehman Council began their collaboration. Lehman Council pledged at least $500 for the event, College Council (CC) pledged $2000 and Campus Life pledged $2500. The organizers also raised $200 through a bake sale last semester, and additional sponsors included the Red Herring, the Office for Community Engagement and the Chaplain’s Office.
Koven and Lehman Council first approached many of the local churches to solicit ideas for potential projects. Lehman Council also proved valuable in contacting local organizations like Louison House. Several Lehman Council members served as project leaders, including Madeline King ’11 and Laura Christianson ’11, and felt that the day provided a good opportunity for students interested in working in the community.
“I think I can speak for the Board in saying that it is our hope that getting students out in the community will help them develop a better understanding of the community Williams College is surrounded by and put things in perspective a bit,” Christianson said.

The organizers looked for projects that were not only within reasonable distance, but would also allow students to actually make a difference in a four-hour time slot. At the Christodora Education Center, for example, volunteers cleared away branches and debris left over from a particularly damaging winter ice storm. The center serves as a camp for mixed-income New York City students who have not otherwise had the chance to leave the city. This project, which Koven led, was the largest, with 26 participating students. “That camp went from being not even close to operable to being completely operable,” Koven said.

The Great Day of Service also provided a venue for smaller projects that had already been successful in the past. The Adopt-a-Highway group cleaned up a two-mile stretch of Route 2 between Cole Avenue and Stop & Shop. Dodd Neighborhood already sponsors these clean-ups once each semester, but Saturday offered a chance for new volunteers to get involved in the activity.

“I think it’s really powerful to have one big day dedicated to community service because it gets all the students who are excited about community service together and makes it easy for them to commit some time to the community,” said Gershwin Penn ’11, who led the Adopt-a-Highway volunteers. Penn also serves as the Dodd community engagement chair.

The event’s main logistical pieces dealt with food and transportation. Funding went towards providing breakfast during the morning registration period, and Dining Services supplied bag lunches for the volunteers that afternoon. Registration, food and the Art for Hospitals project all took place under a tent set up in Frosh Quad. Because the Great Day of Service could not afford the tent in full, Dodd contributed funds so that the neighborhood could sponsor a campus-wide tent party on Friday night.

According to organizers, the event’s visibility helped draw excited volunteers. Lehman Council and Koven used posters, a Facebook group and an event Web site to draw a wide array of willing students. “In terms of incorporating the student body as a whole, and in terms of gaining more respect for and from the community, doing [community service] on a broad scale is very effective,” Koven said.

Indeed, with the dual goals of engaging with the community and making a legitimate difference, organizers thought that the Great Day of Service could serve as a paradigm for future umbrella service projects. “Even the projects that are on campus help by getting students to stop their school work and analytical thinking for a bit and simply act together,” Christianson said.