September 20, 2011
Six thousand incoming freshmen and transfer students boarded buses in Westwood this morning to fan out across Los Angeles for UCLA’s third annual Volunteer Day.
Accompanied by some 1,100 UCLA staff, faculty, alumni and other volunteer team leaders, the students cleaned, painted, made repairs and gardened at 26 sites throughout the city.
UCLA Chancellor Gene Block and his wife, Carol, joined volunteers at Breed Street Elementary School in Boyle Heights, where 300 students painted hallways and stairways and prepared garden beds for classroom vegetable patches. The Bruins also helped give every student at the school a tote bag packed with school and art supplies — a gift worth more than $45,000 provided by the nonprofit organization K to College.
“This is a very special day for us,” Block said in brief remarks given at a school assembly before pitching in to paint. Volunteer Day is part of the chancellor’s major initiative to expand UCLA’s already strong tradition of service.
“We’re doing this for ourselves, and we’re doing this for others,” he said. “This helps establish a value among our students — our new students — about the importance of volunteerism and giving back to community.”
Freshman Casey Woods, paintbrush in hand at the Boyle Heights school, said, “It’s very cool just looking down the hall and seeing all these blue shirts and seeing the smiles on the (elementary school) kids’ faces when they watch us with all the paint.
“It’s very rewarding,” she said. “It’s very cool to have this be our first activity as a freshman.”
Breed Street Elementary School principal Patricia Romero said she was thrilled to have the UCLA students on hand. Their presence “plants seeds for (Breed Street) students that college is a thing to do. I want my students to look at them and say, ‘Hey, I want to be like them. That’s a possibility.'”
UCLA volunteers at the Union Rescue Mission in downtown Los Angeles scrubbed walls, floors and furniture. The rescue mission, established in 1891, is one of the largest of its kind in the U.S. and the oldest in the city. The mission’s CEO, Andy Bales, said that UCLA Volunteer Day helps inspire future volunteers.
“I know there are some folks here who are going to be lifelong volunteers … who learn to give themselves away by working here today,” he said.
Sean Sabina, a fourth-year biochemistry major, was celebrating his 21st birthday while volunteering at the mission.
“It’s pretty fun,” he said. “I haven’t really given anything back to people on my birthday before. I feel like it’s more fulfilling on my birthday to do something for somebody else.”
Freshman Mingju Yang, from Chinquong, China, said, “This is a very different experience from China,” where she was part of small groups of volunteers serving at a senior center. “UCLA is a really big university with people from everywhere, and I want to meet them all.”
Leading the project at the Union Rescue Mission was Penny Menton, associate director of UCLA Transportation Services.
“It’s absolutely worth doing,” she said. “It really makes you feel good about making a contribution, because you see immediately how it makes a difference in the lives of others.
“I believe this is one of the critical components in educating not just students, but faculty and staff,” she added. “People are feeling the synergy of working together and collaborating and taking pride in all aspects of our city.”
About 150 volunteers mulched paths, spruced up picnic tables and more at the TreePeople park in Coldwater Canyon. The TreePeople organization educates people about ways to live more sustainably and make Los Angeles a more environmentally friendly place.
Second-year student Charlene Fernandez said she enjoyed Volunteer Day last year so much that she eagerly signed on again this year.
“You get this surge of accomplishment from volunteering that keeps you coming back,” she said. “People smile when you help. It just makes you feel warm all over.”
Fernandez also met fellow students at last year’s event who have since become good friends. In fact, she said, she and some of the people she met last year “realize today is our first-year friend anniversary. Volunteer Day is the day we met.”
Jim Hardie, TreePeople’s director of park operations, said, “Doing all this work without volunteers would be next to impossible. This would take us weeks without UCLA.”
By mulching the trails, tidying the plant nursery, cleaning the reflective lot and other projects, “they’re helping to care for a unique park for the 100,000 people a year who visit,” Hardie said.
Scurrying from one area to another at the 45-acre park was team leader Jordan Karagiannidis, UCLA assistant professor of medicine. Now in his third year with Volunteer Day, he said, “I wanted to give back to the community. I know it’s a cliché, but we all have that instinct.”
Looking around at the work being accomplished, Karagiannidis said, “It’s very gratifying. At the end of the day, you see the change.”
At Sylvan Park Elementary School, located in a beleaguered part of Van Nuys, principal Larry Kraft-Orozco announced over the school’s P.A. system: “Good morning, boys and girls. When you go out on the playground today, you’ll see 300 students from UCLA. They’re all here to make our school more beautiful.”
The Bruins applied 70 gallons of paint, concentrating mostly on the bottom half of the elementary school’s badly scuffed and dinged exterior walls, giving the school a fresh, clean look in a few short hours.
On hand to observe the transformation was Eddie Martinez, a field deputy for City Councilman Tony Cardenas, whose district includes the school.
“This is wonderful,” Martinez said, adding that “this is one of the highest areas of poverty in the district. There’s very little volunteering in this area, so it’s good there is this program.”
At Vista Hermosa Park, an oasis of nature in a densely populated urban area at the western edge of downtown Los Angeles, UCLA professor of psychiatry Ellen Carpenter helped lead a team in planting vegetation, sprucing up hiking trails and refurbishing park benches. This is her first year with Volunteer Day.
“I got involved because I saw all the buses last year and was impressed with the number of students willing to take a day to help out their community,” Carpenter said. She added that although this is a particularly hectic time of year for faculty, with many demands being made on her time, “I blew off everyone so I could keep this commitment.”
Closer to home, Dr. Reza Jarrahy of the UCLA Department of Pediatric Plastic and Craniofacial Surgery helped lead a team in Westwood, where volunteers helped restore a creek that runs through the UCLA Lab School campus and also sanded and painted play structures used by the children.
“This represents engagement of our faculty beyond delivering medical care — the ability to effect change in our own community,”Jarrahy said.
As the day drew to a close, the fulfillment of helping others was voiced by freshman Nicholas Kneafsey. Preparing to head back to campus from the Union Rescue Mission, he said half-jokingly, “I wonder if you can minor in volunteering.
“It’s such an enjoyable experience,” he continued. “I could definitely do more. It’s not that I haven’t done volunteer work, but it’s something that you always tend to put off. That’s why this experience has been so great.”
Volunteer Day is a special project of the UCLA Volunteer Center, an online gateway for civic participation available to all Bruins, past and present.