Lending a hand

One recent morning in the basement of Cole Memorial Chapel, a group of student volunteers sat around cloth-covered tables, talking with local senior citizens. On each table a little sign defined their mission: “Let Your Life Speak: Volunteer, Engage, Inspire!”

In their own way, each of these students is doing just that—as Wheaton College students have for many years as part of the college’s annual tradition of connecting with local communities through days of service.

Coordinated by the Office of Service, Spirituality and Social Responsibility (SSSR), the service days provide opportunities for students, as well as faculty and staff, to embrace projects that improve the environment and help local neighbors who are struggling with hunger, poverty and educational access, among other issues.

This particular day, September 12, involved students having lunch with residents from a Norton senior citizen’s home. Even something as simple as a conversation can have a big impact.

Besides the lunch, other service projects include cleaning up shores of the Norton reservoir; helping with the set up for a fundraiser for a local zoo; working with Wheaton students in the Hungry Lyons theme house to cook meals for a soup kitchen; volunteering at Head Start, a preschool for families that live below the poverty line; and helping to hosting and participate in a charity softball game for Best Buds, a nonprofit that creates opportunities for one-to-one friendships, employment and leadership development for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

On September 14, students and Cassie Peltola ’14, SSSR’s new AmeriCorps*VISTA education partnership specialist, took on the challenge of cleaning the Norton reservoir banks. It was a wet, muddy, smelly job, but a rewarding one, Peltola said. Students were not content to cover the assigned area, but spread out to other areas and took time afterward to talk about ways they might encourage those who enjoy the reservoir to take better care of it.

“I was impressed with the level of commitment students had,” said Peltola. “This is something we hear from all of our community partners, none of whom seem to expect to see how hard our students work and how much they care—something we know is changing as they get to know Wheaton better through the work of great students like these.”

On October 18, students will take a trip to the Greater Boston Food Bank to sort food that will be distributed to pantries across the state.

“I think it’s great to be able to connect with the Norton community, since we don’t really get many chances to interact with them,” said Margaret Fogarty ’15, a volunteer at the senior lunch.

Fogarty and other students engaged the senior citizens in conversation, asking about their lifelong eating habits, as several of the students are in Professor of Chemistry Laura Muller’s First-Year Seminar “How Sweet It Is.”

The seminar focuses on the science and politics of sugar and the debate around excessive consumption and its link to obesity and disease. Students sought to gain perspective on how dietary choices differed in the past as a comparison to today’s eating habits.

“The students were really excited to speak to the residents about their lives,” Muller said. “The residents were also excited to ask the students about their lives, so it was a good give-and-take.”

Wheaton has a long history of encouraging students to participate in community service during orientation week. In 2011, service days took on a broader significance. That year, in recognition of the 10th anniversary of the terrorist bombings, President Barack Obama declared September 11 a National Day of Service and Remembrance. It was at the urging of friends and family members of victims, survivors, family members and first responders who, on the first anniversary of the tragedy, began organizing service days they hoped would bring healing and hope to the individuals and communities impacted.

“Wheaton students, faculty and staff were among the 35 million people who participated in that first National Day of Service and Remembrance—and we have participated each year since,” said Vereene Parnell, associate dean of SSSR. “I am proud Wheaton stands in this inspiring tradition. This year, we have expanded our participation across the fall semester in order to support President Hanno’s inauguration theme of ‘changing lives and strengthening communities.’ ”

During his inaugural speech on Friday, Oct. 17, President Hanno will encourage the 20,000-plus strong Wheaton community (students, faculty, alums, staff) to commit to spending at least 15 hours during the next year involved in service.

With service days in place, the effort is well on its way.

—Adam Kilduff ’16