Building a Better World

Habitat for Humanity build

Preparing for midterms. Declaring a major. Working part-time jobs. Dealing with roommates who eat your food. Dealing with parents who still view you as 12 instead of 21. Figuring out post-graduation plans. Figuring out relationships. Figuring out life…

There’s no denying college students have a lot on their plates. It would be easy for UT students to declare themselves “busy enough already” and avoid getting involved with anything they didn’t have to. And yet UT students—hundreds of them—give up their spring breaks to volunteer in communities with which they have no other connection, spend weekends helping local kids who are battling cancer, and raise thousands of dollars to travel halfway around the world to help people recovering from civil war.

“So much has been given to us,” said Maria Williams, a 2009 UT graduate who is now also pursuing her master’s degree in statistics at the UT Knoxville. “We’re doing so much better than so many other people in this country, just to be able to go to college. When so much is given to you, it’s important to give back.”

As an undergraduate mathematics major, Williams initially became involved with campus volunteerism through the TeamVOLS literacy program. During her freshman year as a Vol, she tutored students at Sarah Moore Greene Elementary School in Knoxville.

“I helped them with their reading and math homework,” she said, “and just played with them.”

That initial volunteer experience led Williams to become involved in other TeamVOLS ventures, including alternative break trips. She spent the fall break of her sophomore year in Augusta, Ga., helping build stairs at a park, planting at a botanical garden, and stocking a food bank. She spent her senior year spring break leading a trip to Washington, D.C., where the group worked at a women’s shelter, cleaned up a park and cemetery, and helped organize the administrative office of a children’s clinic.

Alternative break trips also have been an important part of senior Courtney Holder’s UT experience. Holder spent her 2007 and 2008 fall breaks in Charleston, W.Va., and Roanoke, Va., respectively.

“Alternative break trips are one of the most memorable parts of my college career,” Holder said. “They’ve definitely been a highlight—the chance to take the Volunteer spirit to another city and really serving that community, exemplifying the UT spirit.”

The UT spirit is alive and well closer to home, too.

For example, one of junior Lauren Lee’s favorite volunteer projects has been Knoxville’s Prom of the Stars, a dance for people with special needs.

“I was a host at one of the tables, and in charge of making sure everyone had what he or she needed,” Lee said, “and then, after dinner, taking them all out on the dance floor! It was so much fun.”

Speaking of dancing, since 1995, UT Knoxville has been one of 77 colleges and universities that take part in Dance Marathon, the largest student-run philanthropy in the United States. Students raise money through various fundraisers and events throughout the year. Then the Dance Marathon experience culminates each spring in a 14-hour party and fundraiser for the Oncology and Hematology Clinic at East Tennessee Children’s Hospital. Dance Marathon isn’t a “dance-a-thon” where students dance for 14 hours straight; rather, it’s a much broader celebration of what the students have accomplished throughout the year.

“We usually have bands perform, other entertainment acts, inflatables, dancing, and other fun activities throughout the night to keep everyone motivated and energized,” said Shainna Prater, a member of the Dance Marathon executive committee. “We also host a children’s carnival at the end, where kids from the hospital can come and hang out for a little while. It’s so great to see these kids, and it really reminds you why you’re there.

“I personally don’t know any child or family who has been affected by pediatric cancer, and I feel blessed to be able to say that,” Prater said, “but that does not mean that I can’t offer my time and support to those kids and families who have been affected.”

Over its 15-year history, Dance Marathon has raised more than $900,000 for children’s cancer research.

Dance Marathon isn’t the only longstanding event UT students continue to embrace. Students in UT Knoxville’s residence halls are involved in some service projects with years of history behind them, too.

Since 1987, Reese Hall has spearheaded Grand Illumination on the Wednesday before fall semester finals start. Professional staff in the Department of University Housing, resident assistants (RAs), and various residence hall associations throughout campus come together to provide holiday gifts for children from Knoxville’s Boys & Girls Clubs.

“At the event, the kids come in, sing Christmas carols, and they are given their presents,” said Aaron Grisham, hall director for Reese Hall. “And of course we have Santa Claus each year along with several RA volunteers.

“This year was our biggest year; we sponsored 169 kids from local Boys & Girls Clubs.”

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University Housing has another longtime volunteer project with Habitat for Humanity. In 1995, they began partnering with Knoxville Habitat for Humanity in a project they call Housing for Housing. RAs raise money to donate to the Habitat affiliate and also put in hours on the build site constructing the house.

“This year will be our ninth build,” said Jerry Adams, associate director for residence life.

Adams said the RAs initially built a house every spring; then, when costs rose, they began to fundraise for two years and build every other spring.

“It’s a fun challenge,” Adams said, “and it’s something the whole campus can get involved in.”

Getting the whole campus involved in service is something Shande King is passionate about. King, a senior who has volunteered with many organizations throughout his UT career, now serves in leadership roles with TeamVOLS as well as a number of other organizations on campus.

“These leadership positions have allowed me to serve my fellow students as I open up these service events to them,” King said.

“Besides the obvious satisfaction that you get by doing a good deed, you can definitely form close friendships and relationships with others while doing community service,” he said. “I have found some of my closest friends here on campus as we helped serve food or hand out clothes to the homeless side by side. Through these relationships, I myself have grown in my own personal life and have found others who can help me along the way.”

Forming friendships while serving others is a major component of fraternity and sorority life on the UT campus. Each Greek organization spends significant time devoted to philanthropy. Last year alone, UT Knoxville’s fraternity system donated more than 5,000 man hours of service, as well as providing monetary assistance to philanthropic organizations and events in Knoxville and East Tennessee.

The Greek women are equally giving. St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn., is the national philanthropy of Delta Delta Delta sorority. The Delta Sigma chapter of Delta Delta Delta at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, has—for the past two years—been the largest contributing chapter to St. Jude, nationwide. In 2009 alone, the chaper raised $65,680 for the hospital.

As a freshman, Emily Woods was selected to represent her pledge class on a 2006 visit to St. Jude for the top Greek fundraising chapters. Now a senior at UT, Woods cites that experience as being truly life-changing.

“I was chosen to participate in a photo shoot with current patients at the hospital,” Woods said. “That was an amazing experience—to play and interact with the children who were currently suffering from cancer but still had a positive attitude and seemed so ‘normal,’ even though they had gone through so much in their short lives.

“After seeing the uplifting spirit of the hospital on my initial visit, I fell in love with the cause of curing childhood cancer in such an amazing environment, an environment only offered at St. Jude.”

Woods was inspired to represent UT at the St. Jude Collegiate Seminar in Memphis in both 2007 and 2008, and she served as an intern for St. Jude from August 2008 through March 2009.

And a little piece of Woods remains at St. Jude. One floor of the newest building on the St. Jude campus is funded entirely by Tri Delta. “When you get off of the elevator on the third floor, there is a mural of Tri Deltas and patients,” Woods said. It just so happens, Woods is one of the people depicted on that mural, along with a patient named Liam.

“I try not to make a big deal about it,” said Woods, “but it is pretty cool!”

Sometimes it’s the “no big deal” things that matter.

“One of my best experiences volunteering was just a little thing,” said Maria Williams, “but it was really neat. We were volunteering down by the Salvation Army, and I had a big bowl of lollipops—for the kids, but the adults ended up being just as excited.

“To see the look on people’s faces over something as simple as getting a lollipop… A lot of volunteer work is behind the scenes, but just that small, face-to-face interaction—it’s one of the best things I’ve done.”

That little things mean a lot—this is a lesson that students have learned from volunteering, no matter what the cause.

“It’s OK to start small,” Williams said. “Don’t aim to change the world in a day. Aim to spend an hour a week doing something.

“That’s how I started. I knew I could do an hour. But after you get started, you don’t want to stop.”

—Leigh Powell

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