Smith helps community make `a career out of humanity'

After spending the summer as a quasi-volunteer traveling across the country with the Olympic Torch Relay, Lisa Smith is now focusing her energies on connecting Emory community members with volunteer opportunities in Atlanta.

Before she came to Emory in August, Smith spent March through July as a loaned executive from the United Way, her former employer, to the Olympic Torch Relay. As a member of the project's advance team, Smith handled logistics for activities in various cities along the relay route.

The Torch Relay was a once-in-a-lifetime volunteer opportunity for Smith. Now, as adviser to the Volunteer Emory program, Smith is working to help Emory community members who come to her for assistance in finding volunteer service opportunities do more than just participate in one-time service projects. She wants to help them conceptualize volunteering as a way of life.

Valuing volunteerism

For Smith, a dedication to volunteer service started in high school, when she participated in projects through school organizations as well as her church. "Once I got to college, that just continued," said Smith, a Spelman College graduate. "Volunteering was a priority for my sorority. Service to all mankind was our slogan, and we really meant that. So volunteering was something that just stuck with me, which is how I think I ended up in the non-profit sector, whether or not I realized that at the time. Now it's something that I live and breathe, and I infect other people with the notion of helping someone else."

In her interactions with those who come to Volunteer Emory for assistance, Smith emphasizes that volunteer service is much more than an obligatory gesture to satisfy a course requirement. Rather, volunteering is a basic societal responsibility shared by all, especially those who have been the most fortunate financially. "What I would like Volunteer Emory to do is help others in making a career out of humanity," Smith said.

Another dimension of volunteer service that Smith wants to expand at Volunteer Emory is the idea of linking students' academic lives with their lives as volunteers. For a student studying child psychology, for instance, Smith can find a volunteer service opportunity that matches that student's academic interest. Smith also wants to help find volunteer service links for students in fields where such service might not be as obvious a concern, such as the basic sciences or mathematics, where education and tutoring opportunities often fit the bill.

"I want to help students answer questions like, `How do I volunteer if I'm a math major?'" Smith explained. "I want to help them figure out how volunteer service carries over into their academic experience, or their real-life work. Those types of majors usually don't see it as affecting them as much as psychology, sociology or religion majors, for instance."

Reflecting on service Smith's goals for Volunteer Emory are fourfold: 1) to educate the Emory community about volunteering and promote awareness of volunteer opportunities; 2) to recognize individual accomplishments of Emory volunteers; 3) to support individuals and groups at Emory in developing community service projects or service learning opportunities; and 4) to provide and promote reflective evaluation and thinking about one's service activities.

Expanding the role of reflective evaluation will be of particular concern to Smith this year. "I want to promote the kind of reflection that's needed to help people see why they did the service project that they did, why those issues such as homelessness or hunger are out there, and to help the participants to figure out if they made a difference or how they can make a difference in the future," she said.

Smith uses several methods in the reflective evaluation component. One of those is providing journals to participants in Volunteer Emory's weekly service trips. "We encourage the participants to write down their thoughts, concerns or suggestions so they can internalize or digest what that project meant to them and why they got involved," Smith said. "If they went to a homeless shelter, they may think about what happened to the people there to cause them to be homeless, and whether the homeless are really that different from them. The journals can be anonymous or they can sign them."

In addition, students can log onto LearnLink and go to a particular area reserved for discussions about volunteer experiences. They can chat either with another student volunteer or with a Volunteer Emory staff member. (The organization is staffed by 19 students.)

"We are also hoping to begin some type of campus-wide reflective service activity," Smith said, "something in the morning that could be a coffee and conversation event, or perhaps a lunch and learn-type thing where people can talk about these issues that are affecting society. We're still in the process of working it out."

Smith is also working on bringing panels of experts to campus to discuss specific issues, such as a panel on AIDS for a forthcoming AIDS Awareness Week event.

What Smith most wants the entire Emory community to be aware of is that Volunteer Emory representatives are available to discuss volunteerism and volunteer opportunities in classes, residence halls and offices, wherever there's a need. "I want the Emory community to see us as a place where their concerns, needs and wants involving volunteer service are a priority for us," she said.

--Dan Treadaway

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