Sun … sand … and surf...
Well, not so much for a group of Arkansas State University students, unless there happened to be one of those ‘60s beach blanket films playing on the classic movie channel in Austin, Texas. You see, nine students and two advisers gave up a typical week of Spring Break for an alternative week of service in the Texas capital.
Each of the five days spent in Austin was dedicated to a different service agency, according to Katey Buckley, A-State coordinator of Student Services and one of two advisers for the group Volunteer ASU, a campus organization that has been existence about a year.
Individual students, as well as student fraternal or interest-based groups from across campus register with Student Services to become a part of Volunteer ASU, and let the organization know the type of projects that appeal to them.
In Austin, the group of nine started their week at the Blunn Creek Nature Preserve, where they stayed busy (on a day that recorded a record-high of 90°) removing the invasive Lagustrum, a non-native plant species that threatens to overtake the preserve.
On Tuesday, the group got their exercise by dog-walking at the Austin Animal Center, the largest municipal animal shelter in Central Texas. Each dog wore a tag showing the date of the last walk it had taken.
Around 50 dogs, of which 60 percent are ‘pit-bulls’ or American Staffordshire, were walked.
A-State sophomore Charmaine Foster, a public relations/theatre double-major from Maumelle, helped other members of the group become comfortable working with the dogs.
“I volunteer at the animal shelter in Jonesboro, so I helped them get acquainted with the dogs, like telling them not to yell and what to do if a dog rolled over,” she said. “I love animals, so this was one of my favorite days.”
Wednesday, the group sorted, weighed and packed food at the Capital Area Food Bank of Texas. At day’s end, Volunteer ASU had processed 4,000 pounds (two TONS) of non-perishable food for this organization that serves 300,000 residents of Central Texas.
On Thursday, the students got into the kitchen––the Caritas Community Kitchen, a non-profit agency that serves the homeless, the working poor and documented refugees in Travis County.
“This place was not anything like I expected it to be,” said Natalie Smith, a freshman public relations major from Valley View. “There was music playing, there were happy colors and flowers all around and they have a full-time chef, along with chef-interns who plan and cook the meals. I really enjoyed being there and felt appreciated by the clients we served. And the food was really good!”
Natalie, Charmaine and the others served 365 lunches, a ‘slow’ day according to the Caritas staff. They also helped with food preparation for the following day––chopping vegetables, cutting cakes and preparing desserts, and mixing pasta salad, with what Charmaine said was the “largest jar of mayonnaise I’ve ever seen!”
“My love for volunteering is new,” Foster explained. “At Volunteer ASU I had the opportunity and decided to sign up.”
She said volunteering at soup kitchens has altered her own habits.
“This may be the only time of the day these people are indoors,” she said. “Now, when I get those ‘care packages’ from my church back home, what I don’t eat or can’t use, I take and donate.”
It’s made me re-think my first impressions of people in need,” Smith said.
Finally, the students traveled on Friday to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, a 279-acre public garden at the University of Texas at Austin dedicated to increasing the sustainable use and conservation of native wildflowers, plants and landscapes. There, they sorted Ash tree seeds, looking for healthy seeds for the center to propagate for stronger varieties that will resist the Asian borer, an invasive species of insect that is killing ash trees in the U.S. at an alarming rate.
This was the second year for the alternative spring break, Buckley noted; she said all but one of the students were new to this week-long volunteer experience. Volunteer ASU also completed a fall service weekend in October at Joplin, Mo., and recently performed random acts of kindness during ‘Make A-StAtement Week.’ Next up, volunteers will assist in Jonesboro during Seatbelt Safety Week.
“Students want opportunities to volunteer,” Buckley said. “We have more students and more student groups wanting to be involved in volunteer projects, and luckily, we’ve had more non-profits register with Volunteer ASU for consideration.”
“Volunteer ASU has been a good way to get to know other A-State students,” Smith said. “It puts me outside my comfort zone and has really helped me become more aware of the need to serve others.”
In addition to Foster, Smith and Buckley, the Austin trip’s Volunteer ASU students were:
- Cunpu ‘Trippe’ Feng – a sophomore finance major from Luohe, China
- My ‘Rosey’ Nguyen – a sophomore accounting major from Vietnam
- Makala Bell – a sophomore biology major from Jacksonville, Ark.
- Yachi Wu – a senior plant science major from Baotou, Inner Mongolia, China
- Ganlei ‘Sophia’ Huang – a sophomore animal science major for Guangzhou, China
- Katlyn Snetzer – a senior biology major from Newport, Ark.
- Zach Marsh – a senior biology major from Hot Springs, Ark.
- Volunteer ASU Adviser Randall Tate, A-State dean of Student Development and Leadership
For more information, you may reach the Volunteer ASU office at 870.972.2055, or visit their website.