Bringing student service to the community

Special to Western NewsTree-planting was one highlight of the inaugural Orientation Serves Day, when 2,500 Western students introduced themselves to each other and to the city through 7,500 hour of community service.

For one frenetic, blue-sky day last September, 2,500 Western students planted trees, cleaned parks, organized a picnic for newcomers and washed cars to introduce themselves to the London community.

The relationships launched that inaugural Orientation Serves Day have become a foundation for closer student ties to the city – and for an even larger event planned for Orientation Week 2018, organizers say.

“This was a bold effort to initiate a philosophy of being a citizen and resident of this community,” said Richard Caccamo, Coordinator of Orientation Initiatives.

Organizers wanted to make sure students caught a deeper vision of the city they’ll call home for four years or more. On the Saturday before classes began, students collectively spent about 7,000 hours getting to know the city – literally from the ground up. Events included 24 organizations at 20 locations, in warm and sunny weather that was ideal for outdoor work.

“As a year-one project, we knew it would be challenging to place 2,000-plus people,” Caccamo said. For the most part, it worked, with a few minor hiccups in coordinating the logistics of bus departures from residences.

Tree planting through ReForest London was one highlight, he said. “It’s really cathartic to put something in the ground. It’s a great community team-builder.”

Mac McIntosh, Student Programs Officer with University Students’ Council, said the opportunity was positive both for students and for London agencies.

“The City of London was a great partner,” he said. “Students were extremely pleased to break out of the ‘Western bubble’ in their first week here.”

Students evaluating the day were overwhelmingly supportive, with more than 80 per cent of participants rating the experience as either positive or very positive.

“On a well-rated week, this was one of the most highly rated,” McIntosh said. Agencies and organizations also provided great feedback about how well students worked together.

He said this year’s event will be even larger, with an earlier start to organizing the day and more participating agencies and students.

One long-term benefit is Western Serves – a community volunteering hub operating from the Student Success Centre throughout the school year – continues to match students and local non-profits.

For decades, the most noticeable mass of Western students during Orientation Week was at multitudes of street corners, where frosh – and Londoners’ generosity – helped Western become the highest university donor to Shinerama, a national event to battle cystic fibrosis. That effort has been replaced by Orientation Serves Day. But that’s not to say Shinerama is dead. Through car washes and barbecues, students still raised $2,700 for the charity.

“The landscape of how students feel about fundraising has shifted of late – moving away from the notion of asking for money and focusing on time-raising as a valuable contribution,” Caccamo said.