Lincoln, Neb.—Union College students are known for singing the school pep song "Slinga de ink" for most of the 115-year history of the school. But on Aug. 24, you will find almost the entire campus slinging paint or rakes, shovels, mops and scrub brushes instead. An anticipated 800+ volunteers will start the academic year as they have for 25 years with Project Impact, an annual community service event. Project Impact is the longest-running and largest ongoing collegiate volunteer event in the country. From available research, no campus has a bigger event by percentage and few have as many volunteers despite 10 to 20 times as many students to draw from.
In the last quarter-century, some 13,500 Union College students and employees have shared 90,000 volunteer hours. In recent years, Union has averaged higher than 80 percent campus participation, which is totally voluntary. A week into the fall semester, students could be expected to be more excited about catching up on sleep than waking up early to paint houses, sort clothes or pull weeds especially if participation isn't required. But for Project Impact, attendance is not taken and there are no incentives other than a free T-shirt, doughnuts and the joy of helping others.
Heather Dickman, first-year physician assistant student from Savannah, Tenn., says her motivation to participate in Project Impact has grown since she was a freshman three years ago. "Through Project Impact, my eyes were opened to the wide range of volunteer activities available in Lincoln," she said. "Project Impact is a great way to start off the school year. I saw the difference it made in peoples lives and wanted to make an impact all year long."
Union College volunteers will serve 50 agencies in the community by helping with the tasks that the full-time staff has a hard time fitting into their work such as painting, raking, sorting and deep cleaning. Project Impact volunteers assist the people who work at organizations who serve the whole community. In other words, Union College Project Impact helps the helpers.
Over the decades, local agencies have come to welcome and even depend upon Project Impact volunteers. Shanna Letcher, volunteer coordinator for Cedars Youth Service, a Lincoln area childcare and support organization, looks forward to working with Union College volunteers. "They're never negative; they're always so cheerful. It's like they really want to be here."
"We are excited about service," says Justin Okimi, a 2006 graduate, current assistant chaplain at Union College and former student coordinator of the event. Project Impact is student-led. With more than 80 percent of Union's student body originating from out of state, the leaders and participants are serving their adopted community. Okimi says that he, along with the event leaders, feel privileged to organize the event details. "By making students really feel like they are part of the community, Project Impact perpetuates the volunteer process. It makes students realize, 'Hey, I'm not just going to college here, I live here. I'm a part of this community.'"
Rich Carlson, vice president for spiritual life at Union College, has been the campus chaplain for 25 years, since the first community service event, which was then called Project BRUSH. Carlson explains why Union, a Christian, Seventh-day Adventist college, makes time in the academic calendar for volunteer opportunities. "When Jesus was here on earth, He went out to where the people were," Carlson said. "He ministered to their needs: He healed the sick, fed the hungry, played with the children—and then He said to those who watched, 'Follow me.' To follow Jesus' example, we prioritize community service—caring for peoples' needs—as an integral part of the holistic education process at Union College."
Pat Pittman from Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services describes the impact of Union's service. "These kids work their hearts out to organize, file, make up packets, clean up the clutter and give us hope in the younger generation."
According to Okimi, through this year's 25th Project Impact celebration, Union College is ready to be a catalyst for other organizations and to take the volunteer event formula that has worked and translate it to businesses and other campuses. One part of this celebration is a partnership with Lincoln Action Program—a private, nonprofit community action agency. In the afternoon, Union College participants will be joined by an additional 150 Lincoln Action Program employees for a revitalization project in the Clinton and Hartley neighborhoods. The combined volunteer force will clean yards, plant trees and remove litter and graffiti.
Other special projects include the following:
• Offering Project iCamp, a day of fun games and activities free for Clinton and Hartley neighborhood kids (9:30 a.m. – 3:30 p.m.).
• Participating in the national Read for the Record initiative by reading The Little Engine that Could to children at the Lincoln City Libraries (10:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m.).
• Providing foot care to children at Matt Talbot Kitchen (afternoon).
The layers of Project Impact events on Aug. 24 all point to the same goal. "It's about making a difference," Okimi said. "We take time to sort food for the hungry and clothes for those in need. We visit the elderly and play with the children. We help the overworked staff who serve our community all year long. And why shouldn't we? We're here, so we should care…and we do."