Project Serve team leader Remy Marlatt, left, and Shamitha Devakandan helped clean up the property of the Guelph Food Bank on Project Serve Day 2013. Photo by BenDeroche
Project Serve team leader Remy Marlatt, left, and Shamitha Devakandan helped clean up the property of the Guelph Food Bank on Project Serve Day 2013. Photo by Ben Deroche

U of G’s Project Serve Day is proof that a lot can be accomplished in just a few hours.

Each year for one afternoon in September, close to 400 U of G students head out to 30 local agencies to volunteer. In that short time span, this initiative not only contributes nearly 1,200 volunteer hours to deserving organizations, but also introduces students to community involvement.

“Hundreds of students get to build a relationship with an agency and get their foot in the door with volunteering,” says Galen Fick, local engagement co-ordinator for Student Life and organizer of Project Serve. “A majority of the students who participate are in their first year, so this event gets them off campus and out into the city to learn what is happening around them.”

Established in 1997, Project Serve is partially funded by United Way donations, as are many of the agencies that benefit from student volunteers. This year, U of G plans to raise $590,000 for the United Way Guelph Wellington Dufferin campaign; about $5,000 of that may come back to campus to support Project Serve.

“The funding from United Way covers all the logistics of the day, from school bus rentals to get the students to the placements, to lunch and T-shirts,” says Fick. “These costs are more than half of the budget, so United Way funding is vital to running the event.”

Fick first learned about Project Serve when he participated as an undergraduate; he was impressed by the program’s “dual effect.”

“It helps agencies by providing volunteer hours and connecting them with potentially long-term volunteers,” he says. “It also helps students realize the value of giving back and understand the needs of the community they are living in.”

In a recent survey of Project Serve participants, 96 per cent of students agreed they did something meaningful during the experience; 91 per cent agreed they are better able to recognize the needs in the community from participating; and 86 per cent agreed they are better able to recognize how one’s actions impact others in the world.

“When I participated as a student, I remember how great it was to see so many students passionately giving up their time,” says Fick. “It’s definitely an event that leaves a lasting impression.”

Although it can be a lot of work for the participating agencies to prepare for an influx of student volunteers for one afternoon, Fick says, “They see value in providing the opportunity.”

Some of the participating local agencies include the Guelph Food Bank, Wyndham House, Habitat for Humanity and Green Legacy.

“Initiatives like Project Serve that encourage volunteerism in the community are so important,” says Brenda Walsh, Green Legacy outreach co-ordinator. “Guelph has one of the highest volunteer rates in all of Ontario, and it’s because of this that we have such a strong community with amazing support programs.”

At Green Legacy, the students worked in the nursery doing weeding, watering and greenhouse maintenance. Over the three hours, students planted 1,000 potted trees for a “living snow fence” program and transplanted more than 3,000 trees to larger spaces. These trees will eventually be given for free to residents in Wellington County.

Project Serve has grown since its inception and now has a consistent turnout of between 300 to 400 students, says Fick.

“Students at U of G identify as both Gryphons and Guelphites, and that’s not true for every university,” he says. “We have a really engaged student population here. It’s nice to give them an opportunity to get out into the community. Project Serve allows students to get off campus and into the community in a way that doesn’t make them feel like a visitor, but rather like they are a part of it.”

Below: Project Serve photos by Ben Deroche, Galen Fick, Monica Gallant, Patricia Lam, Chantale Pomerleau and Tiffany Schebesch

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