Autumn 2008: Campus Beat
Party with a Purpose
The vigor of Volunteer Emory keeps students coming back for more
By Dana Goldman
It’s the night before the start of Emory’s fall semester, but instead of settling in on campus, ten undergraduates have decided it’s time, already, to get unsettled. In between summer jobs and vacations, they’ve been planning this night for months: a trip to the Atlanta Community Food Bank, where they’ll be sorting food donations and learning more about hunger and poverty.
If it sounds like an unusual way to greet the new school year, for Volunteer Emory, it’s tradition. And they wouldn’t have it any other way. For more than twenty-five years, the student group has been stepping out into the community, driven by a sense of what is fun as much as what is right.
For college senior Danny Denton 09C, Volunteer Emory has been a constant that’s defined his time at Emory since halfway through his freshman year. “When I got to college, I spent first semester not really doing much—just hanging out with friends, enjoying classes, playing games,” says Denton. His parents first met at Emory, and his two younger sisters have since followed him, but he was ready to find his own place here. “I was having a good time, but I was also getting bored. Then I found Volunteer Emory.”
Now, Denton is cocoordinator of the group and has a volunteer resume that includes regular stints of tree planting, dog walking, mentoring, and cutting down invasive species of plants. This school year, he and cocoordinator Becca Cutts 09C are supervising twenty-three student staff members as they lead seventeen different volunteer outings each week. In addition, they’re planning a service trip to New Orleans and organizing a portion of Emory Cares, a day of service for the entire community. They’re also helping their new staff liaison, Harold McNaron, get oriented in his job as director of Volunteer Emory.
“One of the key pieces that set Volunteer Emory apart from other college service offices I’m familiar with is the significant leadership roles students take on,” says McNaron, who came to Emory from Hands on Atlanta. “I hope to match their passion and dedication to service, civic engagement, and social justice with my own.”
For Cutts, Denton, and hundreds of other Emory students, volunteering is a way of life that’s worth the sacrifice of time and energy. Both leaders say the greatest rewards have nothing to do with how their service will appear to future employers. “It’s in the back of everyone’s mind that this is awesome for their resumes,” says Denton, an international studies major from Statesboro, Georgia. “But that’s not what keeps people coming back day after day.”
Instead, they’re driven to come back because the experience feels good—which most found out while volunteering in high school. That’s when Cutts started helping out at the Fayette Community Hospital in Fayetteville, Georgia. “That was my extracurricular because I didn’t do any sports,” she says. “But I fell in love with it. I never really saw it as volunteering.” After her first summer at the hospital, Cutts convinced staff to let her keep helping out during the school year, even though their teen volunteer program was specifically for the summertime. She then spent the next four years as a regular volunteer.
“It was my time to go and have fun and meet new people,” Cutts says. “It kind of sounds selfish, but I just really liked doing it. It did something for me in addition to doing something for someone else. It gave me some perspective to see how other people lived.”
Gaining perspective, the students say, is worth the occasional unsettling or uncomfortable moments when they’re arriving at a new volunteer site or working with someone from an extremely different background. “It’s really easy to forget that there are people who have to worry about food and shelter,” says student Mitchell Dao 11C, who came with Volunteer Emory to the Atlanta Community Food Bank. “It’s important to remember we’re fortunate to not have to worry about those things.”
Even on the occasions when students show up for community service not entirely by choice—rather, as a consequence for breaking Emory’s conduct code—they often come back over and over again. “Usually if they go on a trip, they keep coming,” says Denton. “They love it.”
The sheer volume and variety of volunteer opportunities make it easy for students to stay involved. Each week during the school year, students work with refugees, tutor kids in foster care, support homeless families, mulch gardens, advocate for women’s rights, care for animals in a shelter, and visit the elderly. (And that’s just a start. For a complete list, go to volunteer.emory.edu.) Through both one-time activities and long-term commitments, 898 students volunteered last year with the student group.
The weekly trips make Volunteer Emory unique. “Many organizations put on specific events, but only Volunteer Emory has the ability to provide long-term care and solutions to our community for an entire year or more,” says Denton. “We provide a sustained effort that organizations can count on as being much more than a simple band-aid fix, like a shot of fund-raising or a single work day.”
Volunteer Emory was started in 1980 by two students, Debbie Genzer 82C and Wendy Rosenberg 82C, and it remains student-driven. At the same time, the program is a formal part of Campus Life, and has had not only a full-time director since 1996—the same year the weekly trips began—but the University’s financial backing from the start.
Those funds have helped break down barriers that sometimes get in the way of students volunteering.
“Providing transportation for the various weekly service trips makes it easy for students, particularly first-year students who do not have cars, to be actively engaged in the Atlanta community,” says Dean Cynthia Shaw, director of Emory’s Office of Student Leadership and Service.
With that in mind, alumni of Emory—and Volunteer Emory—gave money last year for two minivans to be used specifically for service trips.
Back at the Atlanta Community Food Bank, the students aren’t worrying about classes the next day or how the academic year will progress.
Instead, they’re busy checking expiration dates, making sure recalled foods don’t make it into the boxes that will soon head to needy families. In one day, the Emory students and other food bank volunteers will sort through about five thousand pounds of donated food.
“This is the first time I’ve been at a food bank,” says student Porscha Dickens 10C as she checks a can for dents. “It’s a quick pace. I’m happy to be here helping.”
Dana Goldman is a freelance writer in Atlanta.