Celebration through service
The University’s annual day of service roused 350 students.
On a Saturday morning in mid-January, more than 300 sleepy students made their way to Ida Noyes to participate in the University Community Service Center’s (UCSC) Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service. The annual event, organized by the service center staff, aims to connect students with the community around them. Days of service happen every month and offer a stepping stone to getting involved in the University’s wider volunteer efforts. As a three-year veteran of the MLK Day of Service, I was surprised to note about 100 more volunteers at what is already the UCSC’s largest such event. The volunteers ranged from adults and faculty to young children; this year, the UCSC opened the event up to volunteers from the Lab Schools. Volunteers boarded school buses that took them to some 20 different service sites scattered across Chicago’s South Side—soup kitchens, housing and economic development organizations, churches, and schools—where they cleaned, painted, organized, and built new relationships with community members. The buses were named after famous marches that King took—I rode the Washington bus; others were on buses called Montgomery, Birmingham, and Selma. Table decorations at Ida Noyes were black and gold, honoring King’s involvement in his fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha, which influenced his role in the civil rights movement. Before the volunteers boarded the buses, UCSC staff members gave speeches about what we should take away from our morning of service. The theme of the day was to promote a two-way street for learning and growth. Amy Chan, associate dean of students, emphasized that the communities we were helping would benefit from our time, but that we should also strive to learn about the community that we are a part of. Those words stayed with us on the Washington bus, as I made my way to the Oakwood Shores housing development at 37th and Cottage Grove with Alpha Phi Omega, the service fraternity I am a member of. There we worked with Community Builders, a nonprofit that, according to its website, “uses stable housing as a platform for residents and neighborhoods to achieve success.” Last Saturday this translated into 20 UChicago volunteers helping set up amenities, including coffee bars and packets on how to go about renting a home from Community Builders. Youth-development program leaders at Oakwood Shores—a mixed-income community built on the grounds of a former public housing project—worked side by side with us as we cleaned and pieced together an indoor playground for the neighborhood’s children and as we set up a meeting room for the burgeoning neighborhood association. While we worked, youth program coordinators from Community Builders talked about how they got involved in public service. They explained how Oakwood Shores had been built after the Ida B. Wells Homes were demolished, and how the community evolved from public housing to mixed income. Hearing those stories as we built a playground helped bring home the idea that what we were doing mattered—we were helping create an environment in which the youngest residents would feel safe and would have a place for fun. More than other service experiences I’ve had, this one was particularly meaningful because we weren’t just cleaning or organizing; we were learning the history of a developing community, and we got to explain our reasons for participating in this day of service. The community leaders beamed as they told our group about the work that they did, and what remained to be done, while we gained a deeper understanding about what it means to shape a community.