Hello from the Other Side:  Pick up the Phone and You Might be Surprised!

Jaime L. Russell, Director, Office of Student Leadership and Engagement University of North Carolina Wilmington

April 28, 2017

Community Partnerships.  A connection to the “other side” typically begins with a phone call and taking a risk to see if non-profits in the community are willing and interested in hearing us out and taking a chance. Hopefully, their interactions with representatives from our institution in the past were positive and we don’t end up apologizing for students who did not have the organization’s needs at the forefront of their engagement.  But we won’t know if they are willing to partner if we don’t take the risk and pick up the phone and call.   

One example of picking up the phone and making that first call was back in the spring of 2012.  It was my first semester working at UNCW, and the students were interested in doing a rebuild project at the end of the semester.  I took a chance and reached out to the Wilmington Area Rebuilding Ministry (WARM), an organization we had not worked with before, to see if they had any upcoming projects that were in need of volunteers.  WARM “organizes volunteers and raises funds to complete safety-related urgent home repairs and accessibility upgrades for low-income homeowners.  By preventing home accidents and illnesses, WARM helps people age in place safely - preserving their dignity and independence” (http://www.warmnc.org/home.aspx).  Our first outing included 25 volunteers who learned about the organization, met the homeowner and learned her story and engaged in some rich reflection afterward.  Since then, we have worked with WARM typically once a semester: we coordinate a project date, organize volunteers, provide meaningful education, service, and reflection, and most importantly – we help the organization fulfill their mission. 

Our partnership deepened this academic year when we were presented with the opportunity to obtain a grant.  The Points of Light Foundation offered grants of up to $4,000 to fund 9/11 National Day of Service and Remembrance “Honoring Service” Projects, with the goal of connecting youth with military veterans and their families through service to their communities (http://www.pointsoflight.org/programs/military-initiatives/days-service).  Knowing that many of WARM’s beneficiaries were military veterans, I immediately thought they would be a great partner.  So, again, I picked up the phone.  But not only did I call WARM, but I also called my campus colleagues in Military Affairs.  I thought the grant offered a unique opportunity to take our partnerships, both on and off campus, with the military community to a new level since our institution has a large population of military-affiliated students.  We also decided to spread the love and include a local homeless shelter and food pantry, the Good Shepherd Center (http://www.goodshepherdwilmington.org/), because they have a center dedicated to facilitating an 18-month transitional housing and recovery program for up to 16 homeless veterans called the Sargent Eugene Ashley Center (http://www.ashleycenter.org/).  Three phone calls resulted in three eager and enthusiastic partners.        

Here is an overview of our projects:

9/11 Project Day 1:  We worked with The Good Shepherd Center where we sorted food donations and did some cleaning and The Ashley Center where we packed transition care bags for the men who successfully complete the program and move out of the facility.  The care bags included basic items needed for moving into a new home: cleaning supplies, toiletries, and a bath towel and washcloth. The grant funded the supplies needed for the care bags as well as the cleaning supplies.

9/11 Project Day 2:  We worked with WARM, and we had the privilege of meeting Mr. James, an 84-year-old military veteran whose wife is deceased and he now lives alone. He has lived in the community for 60 years and has lived in his current home for more than 40 of those years.  We built Mr. James a much-needed ramp on the side of the house, and we did some bathroom repairs, which included installing safety bars and a new toilet.  The grant funded all of the building supplies needed for those projects.

Our volunteers both days included a diverse group of students (many of whom were military affiliated), staff, and even our Dean of Students.  Since this project, our Student Veterans Organization (SVO) has continued to volunteer with WARM and assist veterans in the community.  The SVO collaborated with our University Advancement office and piloted a student organization “crowd funding” type platform, which allowed them to raise over $5,500.  This money allowed SVO to financially sponsor WARM projects and do repairs on the homes of two military veterans – one Navy and one Army – over the course of four-weekend outings.  One of the project dates was a reunion of sorts and included volunteers that were recruited from our office, and our Dean of Students joined them once again.

UNCW has found willing and enthusiastic community partners all because we picked up the phone and were willing to cross over from the other side.  Give it a try sometime – you might be pleasantly surprised. 

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