University students continue tradition of service

Sarah Harris

On the chilly Monday morning of Jan. 18, several alarms went off at 7 a.m. Usually students with 8:30 a.m. classes would be reaching for the snooze button at this time, but this was unusual. There were no classes. There was nothing. School was closed. 

Martin Luther King Jr. Day. It was more than just a day off of school and some extra time to regroup at the end of syllabus week. For students up at 7 a.m. in Caughlin Hall, it was a day to serve. 

Volunteers shuffled into the Jake Nevin Field House at 7:45 a.m. They were greeted by committee members in long-sleeved baby blue t-shirts with smiling faces. 

“The night before was very hectic because there were some last-minute mix-ups and we had been outside working in the cold, packing the vans for hours,” sophomore committee member Morgan Reid said. “I was afraid I wouldn’t get up that morning because I would have only had a few hours of sleep. When I woke up at 5 a.m., I was in fact very reluctant to leave my warm room and face the abusive wind and cold. However, I was still excited to put everything we had worked on for months, into action.” 

The committee members directed the volunteers to the balloons with their group numbers. However, most were uninterested with finding their group because the long tables of coffee, bagels, orange juice and granola bars occupied their attention. The breakfast line wrapped around the gym and the promise of food left the group area vacant in the beginning. 

After the breakfast, the volunteers sat in the gym and waited for the opening speaker, Dr. Terry Nance of the Communications Department. 

Dr. Nance’s speech was quickly followed by a prayer from University President Rev. Peter M. Donohue, O.S.A., Ph.D. and the dismissal of the groups to their service sites. 

The piercing wind and bitter cold were a continuous  challenge to the 40 volunteers during the Martin Luther King Day of Service at the Greater Norristown Police Athletic League. Upon arriving at the gym, Group 21 waited for its bus to be called. Most arrived on time at 7:45 a.m. and anxiously waited for an hour to be called to leave. The waiting began to stir murmurs around the group. Some wondered if they could have slept in. Others wondered if it was too late to leave and go back to bed. The thoughts of doubt dissipated as the committee member on stage yelled, “Group 21. Where is Group 21?” The group cheered and quickly moved from the gym, excited to finally be able to serve. 

With 40 people, the bus was almost full. The heat blasted from the vents on the ceiling in the bus and the volunteers, half awake and half asleep, sat observing their surroundings.

After only 20 minutes of driving and little traffic, the bus pulled up to a boxy light brick building with blue window coverings. The building stood on the side of the highway with a baseball diamond to the right and a park on the left. The scents of the annual Martin Luther King Day breakfast wafted throughout the entrance and out the doors. Inside the gym was filled with several groups of people. Church groups, sororities, fraternities, high schools. All kinds of people had come to serve in the Norristown community.

Norristown is a borough six miles from the Philadelphia city borders. The community is small, with approximately 30,000, but strong. The Greater Norristown Police Athletic League has been a community builder for 40 years. According its website, the non-profit organization provides services and programs to youth and their families to encourage “citizenship, self-esteem, avoidance of substance abuse, and respect for the law and order.” These programs include an Adult Basketball League, Boys Scouts, regional College Fairs and even Chess Club. 

 The volunteers were introduced to the leaders of the organization and stood waiting to hear their instructions. The jobs were given out, and the Villanova students were tasked with cleaning a nearby park. Though they were told to prepare to be outside from group leader senior Adam Vincent there was a murmur throughout the group about not coming prepared. 

“I didn’t actually think we were going to be outside.”

“Does anyone have an extra set of gloves or a hat.”

“How can I tie my volunteer shirt around my neck to make a scarf.” 

Upon arrival at the park, everyone noticed something was wrong. The park they were supposed to be cleaning was already clean. There was some garbage scattered around, but with 40 volunteers the task took less than 20 minutes. This wasn’t the large and self-satisfying contribution to the community the volunteers were hoping for. However, for the rest of the day the volunteers were moved from room to room doing small tasks or sitting in the gym waiting for another task. Although it wasn’t a day of back- breaking work or changing lives, something, even if it was small, was done to help others. 

“As one of my site’s two leaders, I got a lot of contact with the people in charge of the places we were working, probably a little bit more than your average participant,” Vincent said. “As a result, my experience was rewarding because I was able to see firsthand the effects of our work and the gratitude of the people we were helping. Sure, picking up trash out in the cold isn’t fun, but it’s more meaningful when you can see the face of the person for whom you’re doing it. Even though we didn’t do a whole lot in either place, I think our mere presence sent a message. Rolling up with forty kids who are willing to help shows the people in these centers that the larger community cares.”

By 2:30 p.m. all of the volunteers were back on campus either in their rooms taking a nap or preparing for the rest of the week. The day of service was over, and the campus was now awake. People who didn’t serve were moving around with those who did, neither acknowledging what the other did with their day off. And even though the day was over, the sentiment of what it meant continued. 

“I loved being able to grow relationships with the sites I was responsible for because it makes it so much more rewarding,” Reid said. “When you hear the stories about the day from the volunteers about the people you have been corresponding with for months, it makes it all worth it.”