For more than 20 years, University of Guelph students have given back to their home-away-from-home community by volunteering with Project Serve, and that tradition continues this weekend.
Project Serve is a decades-long community engagement event that sees hundreds of U of G students head out into the community to volunteer their time with worthy local service agencies and not-for-profit organizations.
While in previous years the event was held on a single day, this year is a little different, said Naomi Fernandes, a co-op student with Campus and Community Integrated Learning, who has been coordinating Project Serve.
“A lot changed with the pandemic and many of the service organizations we worked with in the past have different needs this year,” she said. “So we are working with them to coordinate volunteer opportunities that fit current COVID-19 public health guidelines and that give students a way to give back as well.”
The first event will take place this weekend. About 50 students will head to Hanlon Creek Park to take part in boardwalk restoration with City of Guelph employees.
Fernandes said they had no trouble this year finding students wanting to volunteer.
“I think a lot of students missed getting out and doing fun things in the city or on campus,” she said. “So they really welcomed a chance to get outside, do something nice for the community, get to know the city a little better, and maybe make new friends.”
The volunteers will help repair a 40-metre section of the well-loved boardwalk that runs through a section of wetland in the park, said Dave Beaton, program manager of forestry and sustainable landscapes with the City of Guelph.
“Much of this section was actually built by Project Serve and community volunteers 10 or 15 years ago. But because it’s in a wetland, it’s now in need of some repair,” he said. “So this year’s volunteers will have the chance to get some construction experience while helping to protect and learn about one of the city of Guelph’s largest natural areas.”
Beaton said he volunteered on the boardwalk project years ago when he was a U of G student. Now that he helps manage these natural areas, he said, he appreciates the help he gets from students through Project Serve.
“The students are young and bring so much enthusiasm. This is the biggest repair event of the year for us, so we really appreciate the help. It’s just a great longstanding connection between the city and the University.”
Over the years, Project Serve has seen well over 6,000 students devote 18,000 hours of volunteer work in the Guelph-Wellington area and put the University’s “Improve Life” theme into practice.
It’s a win-win for everyone: students gain volunteer experience and learn about how they can continue to engage in the community, while service organizations receive needed assistance and form connections with students from the University.
For students like Suki Ng, who is pursuing her masters in economics and who volunteered every semester of her undergrad at U of G, Project Serve has opened her eyes to other sides of her community she never knew about.
“Project Serve is definitely my favourite event,” she said. “I always ask to be sent to wherever help is needed because I can learn about organizations I don’t know.”
When she volunteered with The Green Legacy, which helps to plant trees in Wellington County, she learned the important role trees play in creating wind breaks near fields to reduce soil erosion. When she volunteered at the Student Food Bank, she learned that international students are the biggest users of the food bank.
“That surprised me because many assume that students who can afford to pay international tuition are well-off but that’s not necessarily true. So, you can learn different perspectives when you volunteer. It opens your eyes to the many needs within your community you might not otherwise see.”
Now a peer helper with Student Volunteer Connections, Ng helps other students find volunteer opportunities that matter to them.
“I always say you can learn transferrable skills that will help in your career,” she said. “You might learn about an opportunity or maybe even a job; it can open a lot of doors. Or with things like tree planting and the Hanlon Creek Trail work, you can actually step back and say, ‘I helped with that.’”
Students who want to learn more about Project Serve or find out about the next event are encouraged to follow U of G Experiential Learning on Instagram and Twitter, check for events on GryphLife, or visit the Student Volunteer Connections webpage.
Helen Keen, local engagement coordinator
Experiential Learning Hub