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UW Students Give Back to Laramie Community, State
December 21, 2011 — Kali Fagnant can recall the personal gratification she felt when she helped serve a Thanksgiving Day meal to those in need.
As a Powell High School student a few years ago, Fagnant, a current University of Wyoming senior majoring in social work (with a minor in psychology), volunteered that one Thanksgiving, giving her personal time as she and her family helped feed the less fortunate.
"I will never forget the atmosphere and how appreciative people were to have a warm meal and to be surrounded by the company of others," Fagnant says. "I think high school was when I truly recognized the importance of volunteering."
That trait of wanting to help others has carried on not only for Fagnant, but for other UW students, faculty and staff members who reach out to volunteer their services.
"Each year we might average 400-600 students, staff, faculty and community members contacting our office regarding volunteering opportunities," says Erin Olsen, coordinator of the Service, Leadership and Community Engagement Office (SLCE). "Faculty often uses the SLCE office as a resource that combines community-based research involving their students in the classroom."
UW, as Laramie's largest employer, wants to be a good neighbor to the community, Olsen says. She estimates that at any given time nearly 30 percent of UW's students engage in some form of volunteer work each year.
"That number could certainly be higher as well. Volunteering is on the rise, and I think that is due to people becoming more globally and socially cognizant," she adds. "We (SLCE) serve as a clearinghouse for those interested in volunteering due to our community partnerships."
Some of the community partners that the SLCE office works with throughout the school year include Big Brothers/Big Sisters, Wyoming Conservation Corps, Clothing Cottage, Cathedral Home, Agricultural Community Resources for Everyday Sustainability (ACRES) student farm, Interfaith Good Samaritan, Downtown Clinic and the Laramie Plains Civic Center.
The work often includes days of service. For instance, in January volunteers are collaborating to provide service projects for students on Martin Luther King Jr./Wyoming Equality Day. Some other service projects that day include serving meals at the soup kitchen, sorting through and organizing goods at the Clothing Cottage, working with after-school programming at Big Brothers Big Sisters and working with specific projects at the Civic Center.
"This is a big day for volunteers, and we often have more than one service site because many sites can only support 10 or less volunteers at a time. We sometimes average around 200 volunteers; therefore, many sites are needed," Olsen says. "We are still in the planning phase of the MLK Day of Service and these are just some of the plans we hope to put into place."
Other volunteering examples include working at the Lincoln Community Center's renovation efforts or volunteering for the Wyoming Conservation Corps to complete service projects that benefit Wyoming lands. And more and more UW faculty members are building service projects into their courses. For example, assistant professor Tricia Johnson in the College of Education taught a summer class, "Designing Natural Outdoor Play and Learning Environments," in which students built natural play areas at day care centers and other early childhood facilities around the state.
"The students walked away empowered to do something to help their communities, instead of sitting and waiting for things to happen," Johnson says.
Fagnant feels it is important for her fellow students to volunteer because of the overall benefits associated with serving others. She says it opens many opportunities, and the experiences provide an outlet to share her passions.
"Service-learning is a great way to make both personal and professional connections, to make a difference and to grow as a student and person," she says. "As a student, I understand feeling overwhelmed and busy; however, I would encourage others to get involved even if there is initial hesitation toward volunteering. The opportunities that come with volunteering are irreplaceable. You can make a difference in the lives of others and gain skills that will help in future careers and life in general."
She has led a busy life volunteering as a UW student. She has worked at Cathedral Home for Children and plans to attend the coming session of the Wyoming Legislature to learn more about grant writing. She is a member of a recognized student organization that focuses on peer health education, does marketing work for the on-campus Concerts and Convocations Committee and has completed work with the Wyoming Women's Foundation and AmeriCorps.
One of her new leadership roles, along with other UW students, is working to bring Smart-Girl locally and to Wyoming schools. A mentoring program for pre-adolescent and adolescent girls, Smart-Girl involves weekly sessions with fun activities that help participants gain leadership skills and work on issues such as self-esteem and bullying. The program was introduced to the UW students by Colleen Denney, UW Women's and Gender Studies director and professor. This spring the group will introduce the program at the Lab School on the UW campus.
"I am lucky because my volunteering is directly linked with my education at UW. Not everyone is able to process their experiences with a supervisor and I am extremely fortunate in this regard," Fagnant says. "I gain self-awareness and am developing necessary skills for a future career through this connection. On a personal level, volunteering allows me to work with populations, such as young girls and at-risk youth that benefit greatly from empowerment. I find myself learning and growing as a person because of these kids."
Olsen says many different student organizations on campus, from fraternity, sorority, religious, academic and student-athletes all lend their time in some way throughout the school year. She says UW students are following the national trend -- young people volunteering their services to help others.
"I often hear that this generation of college students lacks interest in their community and are apathetic. I don't necessarily agree with that sentiment based upon the students I interact with on a daily basis," she says. "Students are socially and globally conscious and want to be part of something bigger than themselves. Volunteering is often the answer for so many students because they can make a direct impact upon their community and in return upon themselves."
She adds volunteering allows students to develop their civic identity and become well-informed and critically thinking members of society.
"Ultimately, our goal is to create reciprocal relationships with our student volunteers and our community partners. That way each benefits in a positive and productive manner," Olsen says.
University of Wyoming volunteer students Michael Curran from Manasquan, N.J., and Whitney Ladwig, from Franktown, Colo., sold vegetables at Laramie's Farmers Market last summer. The vegetables were grown at UW's Agricultural Community Resources for Everyday Sustainability (ACRES) student farm. (UW Photo)