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UT goes on a volunteering spree

The school ditches the traditional freshman orientation shopping trip in favor of community service, drawing hundreds of volunteers.

By LINDA GIBSON

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 22, 2000


TAMPA -- For three hours one recent Saturday afternoon, hundreds of University of Tampa students, faculty and staff left the campus and pitched in at non-profit agencies.

UT President Ronald Vaughn painted walls inside the Haven Poe Center for runaways. The dean of the business school weeded flower beds at a home for the mentally ill, while an associate dean of arts and sciences dealt black jack and poker hands to residents of a nursing home.

"They showed up, rolled up their sleeves and worked side-by-side with students," said Angela Lauer, who coordinated the event.

At 18 locations, ranging from the Humane Society to the Ronald McDonald House, UT students, professors and staffers reported for duty. They weeded and mulched landscapes, cooked meals for the homeless, walked stray dogs waiting to be adopted and entertained senior citizens.

Freshman orientation at UT used to involve a shopping trip. Last spring, however, staff members Lauer and Stephanie Russell in the school's community services office had an idea: Why not ditch the shopping trip and instead organize an afternoon of volunteer work?

They spent the summer working with the campus PEACE office to pull the event together. PEACE, which stands for People Exploring Active Community Experiences, maintains a directory of 300 community non-profit agencies willing to welcome student volunteers.

"We did cold-calling of agencies, asking if they would have any opportunities for us," said Lauer. "The response was overwhelming."

So was the response from students. Typically, about 60 students signed up for the shopping trip each year. More than 400 freshman signed up for the program, called Into the Streets.

"From the interest we got in that, we're planning Make a Difference Day in January, during Martin Luther King Jr. weekend," Lauer said.

Make a Difference will expand volunteer participation to the entire student body, instead of just freshman. Ideally, each agency will be able to host a minimum of 20 volunteers for the day. That will simplify planning for getting students bused to and from wherever they'll be working.

But agencies that can't handle that many volunteers also are welcome.

"We'll be flexible. We wouldn't keep any agency from participating," Lauer said.

In addition to volunteer work, UT wants agencies that will give students a tour of their operations and information about the people they serve. That will give the volunteers an idea of how their work that day affects the clients.

"There's a huge emphasis on community service" at UT, said Lauer. More high schools are requiring some kind of volunteer work from their students, so more students arrive at UT who already are interested, she said.

Professors also see benefits. At UT, those in education, sociology, psychology, biology and environmental sciences are especially likely to require some hours of service work outside the classroom to augment what is learned from books and lectures.

"Faculty are finding that putting that education to work in a practical setting really drives the point home," she said.

Like Into the Streets, volunteers who sign up for Make a Difference will not know where they'll be working or what they'll be doing.

"You don't get to choose; you show up and get assigned to a site," said Melanie Paulus, PEACE coordinator. "People get to experience things they never would have chosen on their own, and that's a good thing."

Those who want to choose, however, can visit the PEACE office or call it at 253-6233, ext. 3695. Paulus or one of the other students there will happily look through their directory for whatever category of volunteer work is of interest: animals, children, criminal justice, families in crisis, health care, homelessness, hunger, religious-based programs or the elderly, to name a few.

-- Linda Gibson can be reached at (813) 226-3382 or gibson@sptimes.com.

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