Volunteers in Action Student Leaders Reflect on Service

UVM’s Volunteers In Action (VIA) student organization was recognized last Thursday evening at the Burlington Neighborhood Night of Success, a program that celebrates individuals and organizations who contribute to the Burlington community.

Fifteen VIA program coordinators and volunteers were present to receive the Neighborhood Leadership Award for their efforts to improve the relationship between the campus and off-campus community. In honor of this occasion, the members of VIA’s council offer suggestions and tips about why volunteering is important and how to become involved in service.

ActivismFor Laura Megivern, director of the VIA governing council, community service is connected with activism. They are both about affecting change and building relationships with people. She wants to do good for the community.

“For some reason, I was always drawn to stories about injustice,” she said.

When she was younger, she would read about problems in the world through books, and would want to fix them. She ued to write a column for The Burlington Free Press when she was in Middle School. She still remembers one controversial column she wrote about an incident at a school dance. The DJ encouraged the male students to form a line and make the female students dance for them. She objected to the sexism.

“I was really into feminism. It was one of those girl power things,” said the junior human development and family studies major.

Megivern said the administration responded by issuing a policy of conduct that banned behavior like that.

Many of her classmates were angry about the article.

“It really raised a stink,” she said.

When other students confronted her, she said some of her teachers encouraged her to defend herself. One teacher took notice and recommended that Megivern take part in a student leadership program. Her story is an example of how activism can lead to more structured and intentional community service. The leadership program eventually led her to becoming a Community Service Scholar at UVM.

MotivationAlexander Weisberg-Shelley, secretary of VIA, spoke in humble tones about his volunteer work. He said he values leadership experience the job has to offer.

“I’m not the type of person who goes out and buys gifts for myself,” he said. “If not do something for myself, I’m definitely gonna do something for someone else.

“On top of being a volunteer, I like to be making the decisions. Everyone strives to be at the top.”

Weisberg-Shelley, a junior English major originally from Miami, is a new transfer student to UVM. He said he came to Vermont because he was tired of the city life. He wanted to go as far north as he could.

“The further up I go, the harder it would be to get back down,” he said. In high school back in Miami, he worked with an organization that taught inner-city and underprivileged youth how to sail. He didn’t do as much as he would have liked to because the group wasn’t organized enough for him.

Weisberg-Shelley feels structure and organization are keys to getting the most out of a volunteer experience. One of his projects as secretary of VIA is revising the manual for new volunteers and program coordinators.

DiversityWeisberg-Shelley isn’t the only officer of VIA who has traveled a long way to do service. Samantha Munro, former VIA program director, is also from Miami. Although she said she’s happy with her choice, she misses the diverse cultural influences in Miami.

“There’s a totally different energy,” she said.

Although VIA’s programs offer a wide variety of activities, she worries that it isn’t reaching out to enough students.

“Are they not diverse enough issues?” she asked.

Munro would like to see more cross-cultural interaction in the service opportunities VIA offers and in the students who participate.

“It would liven this place up,” she said.

Munro would like students to have the kind of eye-opening experience she had on a recent trip she made to India, where there were malnourished children running through the streets and even being beaten. “The things that I saw broke any sense of pity for myself,” she said.

Munro is proud of the work VIA has done to recruit a diverse population of students through its Alternative Spring Break and Pets Helping People programs, she said. She is confident she can continue making a difference throughout the organization. She thinks volunteering is one way students can leave their mark on the university.

“If you wanted to put your influence in, you can.”

LeadershipJason Williams, fundraiser for VIA is also motivated by an experience in another country. Williams went on a trip last year during Alternative Spring Break to the Dominican Republic. They volunteered at an orphanage where he go to know a lot of small children. It didn’t take long for one three-year-old named Mingo to get attached.

“He fell in love in like three days,” Williams said.

After the trip, Williams said it was hard to leave the children and get used to the idea that he and the other students would just be replaced by new volunteers. The experience made him question why he was in college at all.

While he struggled with his emotions, his physical health took a turn for the worse. He said exhaustion from the trip led to strep throat; he got stomach flu from drinking the water; and he said he and his girlfriend both got a flesh-eating infection. He recovered from the virus but not the desire to serve.

He first got involved as a volunteer through VIA but started to think about becoming a program coordinator in the first week. Williams said he’s the kind of person who tends to take on a lot of responsibility in everything he does. Service is a way of life for him.

“I’ve never had to question why I do service,” he said.

And there’s no question about what he wants from a future career.

“I just want to do what I do now and get paid for it,” he said.Skills

Paul Vallett, a freshman from Fairfax, VT, is also an officer for VIA. As communications director, he manages the organization’s listserv and website. He is currently creating an online tool that will help keep track of the organization’s volunteer hours. Although he has an official title, he appreciates how the officers share duties and roles.

“As a whole, we work together,” he said.

Vallett’s volunteer work shows how important it is to find the right fit when looking for service opportunities. His technological strengths always come in handy.

“A lot of people don’t have computer skills but you can do a lot with them in volunteer organizations,” he said.

Vallett, a chemistry and math major, first realized how useful his interest in computers is when he volunteered to help create a database for Burlington’s Women Helping Battered Women in high school. When he became involved with VIA, Vallett realized a big problem on campus is that there are so many places to volunteer on an off campus but students have to hunt them down.

“It would be easier to look at all of them in one place,” he said.

He wants VIA to provide a centralized location where students in need of volunteer opportunities can go as well as staff or faculty in search of student volunteers.

Vallett takes a few hours each Sunday to help one of VIA’s programs, Food Salvage, serve dinner at Burlington’s King Street Youth Center. Another factor in finding the right community service is the time it takes. Vallett understands many students want to volunteer but can’t find the time but he says once you find the time, you won’t regret it.

“It may just take some time but by the time you’re finished, you’re glad you did it,” he said.

For more information about VIA and its programs, e-mail [email protected] or check out their website at http://www.uvm.edu/~service/