Changing lives, one day at a time

More college students are making volunteer work a priority.
Monday, May 10, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 9:06 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

The first time McKenzie Boyd volunteered, she played bingo and ate cookies with the residents of a senior center in Texas.

It was in high school and Boyd was involved with the student government.

She recalled how volunteering was merely an obligation.

“I was doing a lot of things in high school that wasn’t community service,” she said.

“I just really didn’t have time, and I was trying to keep my grades up. It’s really hard.”

Her perspective of community service changed when she came to MU a year later.

“I know it’s something that I need to be doing. It’s time that I could start over and change my priorities,” said Boyd, now a senior. “So when I got here, I have a lot more freedom. I can do whatever I want. I can transform myself.”

Boyd is currently president of the Habitat for Humanity chapter at MU and helps with the Relay for Life in her spare time.

Cindy Mustard, executive director of the Voluntary Action Center, said more and more college students such as Boyd are starting to place volunteering as one of their top priorities.

“Young people are taking a bigger interest in their community and responding to the needs out there,” Mustard said.

The center helps coordinate volunteer needs for 180 agencies in the community.

Last year, Mustard said the center helped more than 7,200 people, three times as many as when it started nine years ago.

Although actual figures were not available, Mustard estimated the percentage of people volunteering in Columbia to be about 5 percent higher than the nationwide average of 48 percent.

She cited college students, church groups and the strong volunteer spirit in the community as reasons behind it.

The raised awareness among college and high school students of the need to volunteer was particularly strong, Mustard said.

“Kids today see the world in a bigger picture than they did in the past,” she said, adding this exposure made students less “isolated and stuck in their own comfort zone.”

Mustard isn’t the only one noticing the increase in numbers.

Peggy Kirkpatrick, the executive director of the CONTINUED from page 5A

Central Missouri Food Bank, said the number of volunteer hours for the Food Bank jumped from 12,000 two years ago to 33,000 last year.

Last month, the food bank recorded 8,000 volunteer hours, 20 percent of which were contributed by college students, Kirkpatrick said.

The Central Missouri Food Bank distributes food to people in need in 31 counties across the state.

Kirkpatrick said more students, church youth groups and scout groups were volunteering their services, pushing up the numbers. “Some of our greatest volunteers are young people. We love working with them because of their enthusiasm,” she said.

“They aren’t cynical, and they believe they can change the world,” she said.

This year, a class on marketing principles in MU raised 4,000 pounds of food and $12,000 for the food bank, said Sarah Banks, volunteer coordinator at the Central Missouri Food Bank.

The increase in service-learning courses offered at MU, Kirkpatrick said, also contributed to the rise. Students participating in these classes must perform at least 45 hours of community outreach and integrate the service aspect with their curriculum.

This academic year at MU, more than 2,000 students enrolled in 86 such classes offered by the Office of Service-Learning.

Participation in volunteer activities organized by colleges also has increased.

Lynda Purdie, the program director of the University YMCA at MU, cited the increase in opportunities for students to volunteer as the reason behind the increase in numbers.

“There’s a wide range of activities that students can be involved in, and it’s not the typical volunteer things that you can imagine,” she said. “Students have more choice in what programs they choose to do.”

This, she said, allowed students to find an area of community service they were passionate about and willing to commit to.

“College students want to see results. They want to see what they affected. They want to see a finished product,” she said.

Working with children, she said, was one popular way.

The YMCA organizes a program called Kid Contact, where volunteers spend an afternoon each week interacting with preschool children.

Purdie said the number of volunteers this semester has doubled from the previous one.

Volunteering has become a “part-time job” for biology major Karli Echterling, 21.

Echterling was nominated for the City of Columbia’s HERO Award during the National Volunteers Week this year for her efforts at organizing the LIFE program at Gentry Middle School.

The LIFE (Lasting Intergenerational Friendship Experience) program aims to teach the middle school students more about senior citizens and provide opportunities for both parties to interact with each other.

Echterling spends around 10 to 12 hours a week volunteering and has been doing so since high school.

Like any other college student, Echterling has examinations and assignment deadlines to meet. However, having the students tell her they learned something, and seeing the joy on the senior citizens’ faces is enough to keep her going.

“It makes you realize that something has changed in their lives,” she said.

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