Service day's impact felt beyond those served

Yesterday, 750 Union College students and employees took the day off from school to provide community service at nearly 80 sites around the city of Lincoln. Started in 1981 as Project Brush, Union's annual service day now known as Project Impact has seen an estimated 18,300 volunteers donate 115,000 hours over the past 31 years.

I stood on the sidelines for a while, trying to muster the courage to venture into the sea of signs and people shouting numbers trying to recruit volunteers to look at all the projects before deciding where to go. It took me a while, but, after a short pep talk and a bit of deep breathing, I eventually took the plunge.

I love Project Impact—the anticipation throughout the week, the free food and t-shirt and the opportunity to interact with the community. I could sing its praises all day, but nothing stresses me out more than wading through the bedlam of voices and bodies, trying to figure out which site to join.

There are always a lot of cool projects to choose from. Some friends almost convinced me to mulch, paint and/or weed, but instead destiny led me to Emily and Laura. Emily, our fearless site leader, needed twelve people to help clean a five-story home for individuals and families recovering from addiction. We had three. We tried for more recruits, but most people already joined a group and several other teams were short members, too. This year's record number of 80 service sites—up from 72 last year and 57 the year before—stretched the pool of volunteers like never before.

I learned from a friend who worked at the site last year that the house was really cool and had a secret passageway. My excitement increased by a factor of ten and I knew I had made the right decision. We all posed for the group photo then set off with a running start.

We arrived in good time at the beautiful early twentieth-century house and walked through the back porch into an ornate living room, complete with china cabinets and long rugs spread across the wooden floor. The women who met us asked how many were coming and looked relieved when we replied, “just us.”

“Good,” she said. “I’m not sure I could handle fifteen today.”

She showed us the ground floor and then led us downstairs to a large, comfortable basement room with a kitchenette at one end. “Do you want to see the tunnel?” she asked.

We looked at each other with awe and an expression that read: so it's true…? “Sure,” Emily replied nonchalantly.

She opened a door in the kitchenette that led into a series of dark, musty rooms. A bare light hung from the ceiling of the first one and the two I could see beyond just faded into darkness. A mirror at the end of the corridor reflected a little light, but added to the eerie sort of atmosphere. “The man who built the house made the tunnel to connect to his brother’s house down the road,” she explained. “It was during prohibition.”

She closed the door again and we set out to work. None of the house was horrendously dirty, but the rooms needed sorting and vacuuming. Laura began with the vacuum while Emily and I attacked the kitchenette, largely cluttered with art supplies.

We waded through the paints and papers and focused on creating some kind of order. Soon we discovered beautiful furniture beneath the mess—little chairs and a chest of drawers in swirling, bright colors depicting animals and scenes from stories, all child-sized and apparently hand-painted. Judging from all the crayons I found and paintings with stick figures, this was definitely a children’s art room.

Two easels and random boxes filled with art supplies, remnants of art supplies and ceramic mugs occupied most of the floor space, making it difficult to use any of the furniture. We packed away some of the larger obstacles and stuffed the more bizarre objects into a cupboard. We threw out the clutter and cleaned the floor and surfaces before rejoining Laura, who had single-handedly transformed the main room.

After tidying the downstairs, we went up and powered through the first floor’s dusting and vacuuming and finished around 11:45. “Would you like to see the rest of the house?” the woman asked

“Yes!” we chorused excitedly.

We climbed up the grand, swirling staircase through the next three floors. The lower two levels had guest rooms and a lounge, while the very top housed only an art studio. Many windows gave the room a bright and airy feel, and you could look out onto the street below. Granted, we could only see cars and trees, but it felt far above the world and almost magical.

We descended down the stairs and back to earth, said our goodbyes and got in the car to drive away. Emily called some other sites to see if anyone else needed more help, but they said, "no," and advised us to go back to campus. We were early, maybe one of the first to get back, so we sat under the clock tower discussing our adventure while we waited for everyone else to return.

I asked the others about their favorite part of Project Impact. “I think it’s good to get out and help people because in doing so you gain a blessing, too,” said Laura. “This year was different for me because it was the first time I’ve gone inside and because it was a smaller group. In a big group you don’t feel like you really make much of a difference, whereas here I felt more needed and like I personally could make an impact.”

“I think it’s cool to hear other people’s stories,” said Emily.  “You don’t realize how different people are from you and yet how much the same. Just hearing their stories you can tell where they come from and struggles they’ve had. The lady was telling us about how holding an exhibition to display the artwork of people who were staying there helped them heal. I’d never thought of that before. She showed me how kind she is and how she really cares about the people she works with. She had their artwork all over the house.”

“She also told us that they make a big effort to make the house look nice for the art displays and to frame the pictures,” said Laura.  “After the art shows she said the artists get a different picture of themselves. They have more self respect.”

I love Project Impact. I love the t-shirts, the day off from classes, the free food ... but more than anything I love the people and the feeling we create when we come together to try and make the world a better place. I love that we can share a little bit of who we are at Union with the rest of the community.

As Pastor Michael Paradise, young adult pastor at College View Church, put it, “This is Union’s best day. This is the day people get a chance to see Union in the best kind of way.”

In my opinion, it’s a chance for people to see the spirit of Union for what it really is.

Joellyn Sheehy is a junior international rescue and relief and pre-med major from England.