By Michael Kirkpatrick
Thousands of volunteers, dozens of projects, and hundreds more leaders make UCLA Volunteer Day one of the most impressively organized philanthropic events I’ve ever seen. Just imagine if you will, 55 students a minute filing through a dining hall line for two straight hours. Follow that by loading these now fed 6,500 new students onto 125 buses to transport them varying distances across Los Angeles County. Then have planned out and equipped them to perform three hours of service at more than 50 community partner sites. Oh, and then get them all safely back to campus. The logistics are incredible.
My first experience with UCLA Volunteer Day was in 2011 as a Command Center assistant. The Volunteer Center staff had set up a large conference room above one of the dining halls and assembled volunteers as a mini “Mission Control.” Two long rows of tables faced projectors with live traffic maps and the latest social media posts streaming from the event. At these tables sat rows of volunteers at computers, fielding phone calls from that year’s 26 sites hosting new student volunteers. It was controlled commotion at its best.
Having the job of photographer, I had the opportunity to wander amongst the students and take snapshots as they gathered before departing. It was a sea of blue t-shirts with a whole lot of happy new students. And that was the extraordinary part to me. Everyone was happy. It was early in the morning — college time — so they weren’t jumping up and down, but they all had smiles on their faces and were talking animatedly to each other over croissants and juice.
It’s rare to find such a large number of people who — whether they jumped at the opportunity or required a little encouragement — were all out to perform community service. It’s a characteristic that I don’t see as often as I’d hope. And that spirit, that *let’s get it done* attitude alongside people who are just getting to know each other and making friends is a powerful feeling. Whether they knew it or not, they were not only helping their community, but stitching their own together that morning amongst new friends, fellow Bruins, and really whoever else was around. And that act of community building is what is most important of all.
Excited about what I saw in 2011, I easily volunteered to come back in 2012 as a Project Leader and had a blast. I led around 100 new students in three separate projects at Hope Gardens, a Union Rescue Mission location in Sylmar. Hope Gardens is a family center nestled in the foothills supporting mothers and children in need. At the time we were volunteering, Hope Gardens was in the middle of renovating one of their residence buildings. Our volunteers had the opportunity to help with that renovation, including building bunk beds and disposing of old furniture. Being located in the foothills, overgrowth was an issue and we also had a team of students clearing vegetation from the concrete drainage canals in preparation for the fall and winter rains.
Some interesting notes from that experience that generally hold true for most community service and physical labor projects:
- The details changed: They always do, but I had a wonderful team of Task Captains that were adaptable and strong support staff at Hope Gardens that were ready with a new strategy when plans changed.
- The buses were late: But that’s somewhat expected with the unpredictability of Los Angeles traffic, and the superhuman logistics of loading and directing 125 different buses.
- Important people came to visit: A Los Angeles City Councilman dropped by to see what we were doing and speak to the volunteers.
- A Band-Aid was needed: Luckily it was just a minor scrape.
- Students learned leadership: This, to me, was the most inspiring part of it all. Seeing students who could recognize what needed to be done next and helping direct and organize their fellow students to get it done. Furniture needed to be moved: someone stepped in to lead the lift count and direct the movers. Encouraged students broke out of their shell to quietly lead by consensus and with the knowledge they’d gained by observing the process and figuring out how to improve it.
I wish we could have put in a whole day or a week at Hope Gardens. We had a terrific group of students and made some great progress in the three hours we worked.
I am so proud of the students and the Task Captains for the work they did on Volunteer Day. They made a positive impact on their Los Angeles community and I’ll bet a few made a friend or two while they were doing it.
Volunteering is about more than giving of your time in service. It is about strengthening and growing community. It’s about learning and growing as a person. And it’s about re-energizing yourself.
I can’t wait for September 24th, when I will return as a Project Leader for Volunteer Day 2013 to lead a team of 200 new students and 15-20 staff, faculty, continuing students, and alumni Task Captain volunteers to make a difference at Orville Wright Middle School.