For many students with disabilities, college seems impossible and the opportunities offered by higher education seem closed off. For more than 30 years, the Teaching Learning Center (TLC) at Union College has been helping dispel these misconceptions and make college accessible.
On Saturday evening, Sept. 13, students from Union College's international rescue and relief program gathered for a vote. Dr. Michael Duehrssen, associate director of the program, presented the students with two choices: drive through the night to south Texas without specific rescue or relief assignments or wait until morning to hear more from contacts already in the area.
It's rare to hear college students chat excitedly about weeding, cleaning, painting and sorting, but as groups trickled back to the Union College campus from serving more than 50 sites around Lincoln, Neb., those were the topics on everyone's mind. "We washed windows, scraped gum off tables, dusted book covers ... none of it was anything I'd think to do on my own," said Ashley Herbel, a freshman pre-med student from Wichita, Kansas after spending the morning at South Library. "But going with a group of friends can make anything fun."
With more than 800 participants, there were a lot of friends, new and old, to transform the chores into constructive play. This year's turnout included over 80 percent of the student body along with college employees and volunteers from other local Seventh-day Adventist organizations. While attendance isn't taken for the volunteer event, Rich Carlson, vice president for spiritual life, said Union's Campus Ministries distributed more t-shirts to campus volunteers than in previous years. "I think this is the largest group we've ever had," Carlson said.
Begun in 1981 as Project Brush, the original goal of the day was to paint 100 houses in 10 years. After completing the 113th house, the event was renamed and the projects diversified. Now volunteers focus on serving the agencies that serve others, providing helping hands to do tasks over-stretched social service organizations have a hard time keeping up with.
"It amazes me you can take 10 or 12 people and get done in a few hours what would take me days to do on my own," said Huda McClelland, Union's director of admissions who has witnessed most of the event's 27-year history.
"What we've heard so far from the agencies is overwhelmingly positive," Carlson said. "They're always amazed by the quantity and quality of work our students do and the attitude with which it is done."
Listening to students talk under the campus' clock tower as they shared 220 pizzas, the conversations always returned to the same refrain: the work wasn't only fast, it was fun. Erin Webb, a senior business administration major from Greenville, Tenn., told about finding a creative outlet while painting barrels at Goodwill. Beau Snyder, a senior from Culver, Ore., described cleaning at the Lincoln Children's Museum as, "playing with a pressure hose." Even when Jennifer Dovich, a junior pre-med student from Turner, Ore., mentioned getting paint in her eye while painting a ceiling at Mahoney Elementary School, she added, "It was worth it, it was awesome and so much fun."
Some former students who have experienced the spirit of the community service event returned to share in the labor and the camaraderie again. Thang Nguyen, an alumnus now working in Web development at Nebraska Books, told his boss about the event and she encouraged him to take the day off to participate. "I didn't want to miss the fun," Nguyen said.
Since its inception, Project Impact has been student-led. This year Ann Bryant, a senior business administration major from Woodbury, Tenn., organized the event for the third time and trained a new coordinator, Emily Carlson, a junior elementary education major from Mohrsville, Pa. Both students, with the assistance of Ashley Groeneweg, a biology education major from Omaha, Neb., spent the summer organizing site lists, coordinating with sponsors and ensuring transportation and tools were available. "Hearing the enthusiasm from the organizations makes the months of planning worth it," Bryant said.
Bryant added, "The worst thing that happened today was I didn't have anywhere to send the people who finished and wanted to do more." While the chores for the day may be completed, she hopes the contacts made will serve as a springboard for future service. Past Project Impacts have developed into long-term commitments for both individuals and student organizations, such as the volleyball team, the women's basketball team and the Union Scholars honors program. "One day of raking or painting makes the community slightly nicer," Bryant said. "But creating an environment where service is fun and exciting can have a big impact on the world."
Students always want more of three resources: time, money and sleep. So when Union College students are given a day free of classes and other on-campus commitments, it may seem counter-intuitive that 85 percent choose to show up at 8:15 a.m. to spend the day working--for free. But students make up for what they lack with an excess of enthusiasm and altruism. On Thursday, Sept. 4, Union students will once again commit their time and energy to serving the Lincoln community.
"I think everybody wants to help others," said Sara Baptist, sophomore communication major from Canon City, Colo. "When something presents itself like Project Impact, we jump on it. If Union held it more often, people would still go."
Began in 1981, Project Impact has given students the opportunity to change their corner of the world wile establishing lasting connections within the community. An estimated 15,100 volunteers have impacted Lincoln with more than 99,000 hours of voluntary labor since its inception. According to available research, it's the longest running collegiate service day with the highest percentage of participation in the nation.
There's no brownie points, no extra credit--nothing to motivate the mass of students to join the cause other than satisfaction and a free t-shirt. Whether it's raking leaves, painting shelters, serving up soup or helping build a house, Union College students and faculty turn out to do whatever sweaty, grimy work needs to be accomplished for those in need.
Building on the students' energy and 27 years of success, Ann Bryant, senior business administration major and Project Impact coordinator, sees the event as a way for students to connect with agencies they can serve all year. This will be the fourth year Union's women's basketball team will spend the day helping at the Lincoln Children's Museum, a relationship that has grown as the players return throughout the year to help with events.
"I like volunteering. I feel it's important," Baptist said. "It's not easy for kids to just say 'I'm going to volunteer this weekend.'" Students like Baptist can find ways to do more by talking to Union's student volunteer coordinator, Kaylea Blackburn, sophomore international rescue and relief major from Summersville, Mo., or read about a different volunteer opportunity highlighted each week in the Clocktower, Union's student newspaper.
Bryant, now in her third year of planning Project Impact, sees this year's event as a learning experience for her peers. "Of all the pressures you would think could keep students from volunteering--homework, class, extracurricular activities, the price of gas, whatever--the biggest barrier is awareness," Bryant said. "I've learned that the more people I involve in the planning process of this event, the more people understand the purpose of Project Impact and then are able to take on that passion themselves."