My Service Counts!
The Chico State community joined in a 125th anniversary challenge to log 125,000 hours of service
by Elizabeth Renfro | Photos by Beiron Andersson
Painting murals at Rosedale Elementary School. Carrying a candle in a march to end violence. Circling the rink at Cal Skate with your “little brother.” Clearing trails in Bidwell Park. Shoveling hurricane debris in New Orleans.
If you’re a Chico State alum, odds are good you were involved in at least one of these (or similar) community service activities during your time at the University. Odds are equally high you’d agree with senior psychology major Morgan Covington’s assertion: “My college career here wouldn’t be the same without my service experiences!”
In his 2005 inaugural address, President Paul Zingg lauded Chico State’s longstanding aim “to be known by what we do, how we serve.” He formalized that idea in 2012 with My Service Counts, part of Chico State’s 125th anniversary celebration. The challenge to log 125,000 hours of community service “aimed to encourage students, especially, to develop ‘habits of the heart’—service and giving—that will stick with them for a lifetime,” he said.
In keeping with that “lifetime habits” approach, alums, parents, and friends of Chico State were invited to participate alongside students, faculty, and staff in My Service Counts (MSC). And participate they did. By the time the final numbers were in, almost 3,000 Chico State-ers took part. Individually and in more than 200 groups ranging from Habitat for Humanity to Bidwell Presbyterian Ministry, they not only met the challenge but exceeded it by more than 46,000 hours. For the volunteers, the program meant more than just tallying up numbers—by all accounts, they truly felt a heartfelt desire to give.
It’s what we do
Since its beginnings as a teachers college, Chico State has embraced what President Zingg calls “an extraordinary service responsibility.” In geographical terms alone, the extraordinariness of that responsibility today is apparent: The University’s 32,000-square-mile service area, largest of all CSUs, comprises about 20 percent of the state. That’s a lot of territory to cover … and a lot of service.
But, says senior Jaypinderpal Virdee, “a lot of service” is “just what we do.” In 2011, as Associated Students Commissioner of Community Affairs, Virdee (pictured above with Kim Macintosh) took over coordinating ’Cats in the Community, an annual service day that grew out of an earlier community cleanup project, Scour and Devour. Responding to President Obama’s call to honor Cesar Chavez with a day of “service, community, and education programs,” ’Cats in the Community is now linked to the holiday. In March 2012, more than 600 ’Cats gathered on the Kendall Hall lawn for bagels and coffee, then scattered in teams to spend a Saturday painting schools, picking up trash in Bidwell Park, and serving homeless people at the Jesus Center.
“I hear people calling Chico State the ‘Ivy League of community service,’ ” says communication studies major Virdee, “and it’s true.” Pride is evident in his voice, but so is a note of matter-of-factness. “I couldn’t even name all the service projects we’re involved in,” he continues, “but Chico students do more outreach and community work than campuses twice our size.” Virdee himself is no exception. Besides taking classes and serving as AS president, he is involved in “15 to 20” nonprofit and community service projects, not all of which ended up logged as My Service Counts hours, he admits, because “I just get caught up in the getting-out-and-doing.”
“Several years ago, a group from campus attended a Butte Pioneers’ Leadership Program,” says Gentry. The program prepares existing and future leaders to address organizational and civic issues with an understanding of five priority areas within the region: regional stewardship, community vitality, economic prosperity, educational excellence, and environmental quality.
“That program really instilled how connected we are to big issues such as water, land use, local politics, and change,” notes Gentry. “I really connected with the other participants, but also appreciated seeing people who originated from Oroville—like CSU, Chico alum Glen Toney (BA, Philosophy, ’66)—who have made an impact and a difference. Rather than think, ‘I’m only one person and can’t make a difference,’ or complain, I realized that I needed to get involved to make a difference, even if it’s incremental.”
Gentry decided to find out if there were organizations in her own community that she could be a part of and feel connected to their cause—and there were. “Since it was difficult for me to find anything online about them, I decided we needed a remedy and developed www.palermocommunity.net in order to encourage the Palermo groups to have a presence online. Doing something was better than doing nothing, and I was able to use some easy tools and gather input from others to create content.”
Chico community classics
Two of Chico State’s longest-running service programs, Community Action Volunteers in Education (CAVE) and Community Legal Information Center (CLIC), provide service opportunities for thousands of volunteers each year, and 2012 saw these two Chico classics between them log more than 25,000 MSC hours.
In the late ’80s, when Julie Clark (BA, Liberal Studies, ’90) volunteered as a student, CAVE had already been part of the community for 20 years. Now her daughter Abigail, a child development major, is carrying on the CAVE family tradition, working with kids at Neal Dow School. It’s so important that “the University and community work hand in hand,” says Clark, who logged MSC hours herself in her church and as a member of Chico State’s Parent Advisory Council. CAVE is a student-led, nonprofit volunteer organization serving the Chico campus with more than 15 volunteer programs to choose from. More than 2,000 students volunteer annually through CAVE, providing 60,000-plus hours of community service to seniors, children, animals, and the environment.
For more than 40 years, CLIC has been providing legal information to students and community members. Each year, more than 12,000 people come to CLIC’s interns and volunteers for legal advice on housing, family, environmental, and other issues. The interns value the experience they themselves gain, but almost all echo CLIC administrative director and legal studies major Stephanie Leland’s view that “you’re not only learning for yourself—you’re helping people with information that could change their lives.” That spirit of helping extends beyond the legal arena. In 2012, CLIC volunteers also logged hundreds of hours working at the Shalom Free Clinic and the This Way to Sustainability conference, soliciting donations to Toys for Tots, and constructing 1,000 purple ribbon cards during Domestic Violence Prevention month.
Well on its way to joining the ranks of Chico’s classic service organizations is Up ’til Dawn, a national 24-hour letter-writing campaign by college students for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Two of the 2012 campaign organizers, Kim Macintosh and Jacob McGowan, proudly note Chico State’s title of top collegiate fundraiser five of the past six years. Their pride is coupled with a clear passion for volunteerism itself. Macintosh, an agriculture major, also worked with Handi-Riders, and says the community service experiences she’s had as a student “have truly shaped me into the person I am today. I’ll continue to volunteer the rest of my life.” Even so, she adds, “I don’t think that people should be offered class credit for volunteering—they should just want to volunteer and give back.” McGowan has a somewhat different take, saying with a laugh: “As a mechanical engineering major, this experience won’t even help build my résumé. However, I think that extra credit or units are great incentives to get students to get out volunteering.”
Service in the curriculum
Do class requirements or even elective credits compromise the spirit of volunteerism? After much debate, the MSC committee decided no, says coordinator and Alumni and Parent Relations director Sue Anderson. MSC chose to accept hours for all unpaid work fitting the CSU Chancellor’s Office definition of service: “work provided by individuals that contributes to the quality of life in the community.”
One reason for their decision is that many service opportunities require students to be enrolled in a concurrent course to ensure support and training, as well as to cover legal and liability concerns, explains AS Programs Coordinator Denise Crosswhite. Every bit as significant—perhaps more so—is a point raised by Anderson. “When you talk about ‘service,’ you can’t just talk about the volunteers,” she says. Whether the service is done through a class or as “pure” volunteerism, those abandoned kittens are being cuddled, those kids tutored, those homes built.
Graduation requirements and curriculum design also are key indicators of what a university values. Chico State integrates service opportunities throughout the curriculum, beginning with the First-Year Experience Program, through which students have supported local shelters, collected books for schools in Africa, and fundraised for Afghanistan’s schools. Dozens of other courses campuswide carry service-learning components, and many degrees require service internships. Recognizing that students often desire to spend more than one class’s worth doing service-related activities, the University permits up to 15 internship units.
You’re not only learning for yourself—you’re helping people with information that could change their lives.
Molly Heck, client and housing services director at Catalyst Domestic Violence Services, who also teaches a service-learning internship seminar, “has seen firsthand the transformations students go through. However, some of the most incredible transformations I’ve witnessed have occurred when a student stops being a student, ends their internship, and decides to continue to volunteer ‘just because,’ ” says Heck (BA, Multicultural and Gender Studies, ’02; Master of Social Work, ‘06).
Political science chair Charles Turner notes that in political science, they focus especially on service in the form of civic engagement and community-based learning. “We encourage our majors to complete internships in the community because we want them to see the impact that policy decisions have on individuals and on the society we live in.” But there’s an additional goal behind this. “I am always proud,” continues Turner, “when I hear about our graduates who have made community service a core part of their lives.”
Students whose service nets them course credits overwhelmingly state that units do not end up being the primary motivator. Volunteers at the AS Gender and Sexuality Equity Center (GSEC), for example, all must be enrolled in an internship course.
“It’s great so many majors and courses have requirements that allow students to have real experiences in centers like GSEC,” says GSEC director Christen Huckabee, a multicultural and gender studies major. “Part of the work I’ve done at GSEC was required for my major. However, falling in love with what we are able to do was not required.”
Learning what community means
“I break for service” could be pasted on hundreds of Chico State students’ bumpers in recognition of service “vacations” they take during spring and winter breaks. Participants in the Department of Recreation, Hospitality, and Parks Management’s Field School and the College of Engineering, Computer Science, and Construction Management’s Blitz Build put in thousands of hours serving needs locally and in communities across the country. In the process, students also come to a deeper understanding of what the “community” in “community service” means.
The natural environment is part of what makes a community, and the Field School aims to enhance that for everyone. Begun in 2008 with five students, the program supports “hundreds of student volunteers in parks, forests, and wildlife refuges working on habitat restoration and trail projects, staffing events, and sharing the stories of these special places with visitors,” says Professor Emilyn Sheffield. And the volunteerism isn’t limited to students. Faculty and staff contribute as chaperones, advisors, and even, as did department Chair Morgan Geddie, guest chefs during work excursions at Muir Woods, Golden Gate Park, and other locales around the state.
Blitz Build program students also build community, both in a physical sense and on deeper levels. During their eight-day spring break in 2012, 91 Blitz Build volunteers rebuilt homes for four families in tornado-devastated Joplin, Missouri. Three weeks later, they took on a build closer to home: a two-story barn at Durham’s Patrick Ranch Living Museum. Construction Management professor David Shirah, one of the faculty advisors (and hands-on laborers), explains that Blitz Build’s first step is consultation with community groups.
“We don’t create a project,” says Shirah. “We meet an unmet need they’ve identified themselves.”
During the intensive building process, volunteers become immersed in the community. “It’s one thing to hear stories in the news about people caught in disasters,” says Joplin student project manager Josh Payne. “It’s totally different when you go there and become part of the community.”
The experience has a lasting impact, says construction management major Bryan Eisemann. “I always ask the recruiters [at job fairs] whether company practice includes community service,” he says. “I don’t want to work for one that doesn’t.”
Professor Shirah nods. “What we have here, what we’ve built and continue building,” he says, “is lore—history, tradition—of service.”
Students continue to build on that time-honored tradition at Chico State. When asked about her work in Blitz Build—and her other community service—senior Shelby O’Reilly-Gronke says she honestly has no idea how many hours she puts in. Unconsciously echoing Virdee, she says simply, “I just do this.”
Chico State’s students, according to the Admissions Office, average 200,000 hours every year in service to the community—whether it’s an anniversary celebration year or not. Clearly, service is part of the Chico Experience. Senior psychology major Lauren Phillips has no doubts about this. “My college experience drastically evolved from when I was only a student to when I became an involved participant in the community,” maintains Phillips, and she believes every student should have the experience. “It is too transformative of an opportunity for anybody to miss!”
About the author
Elizabeth Renfro (BA, English and German, ’72; MA, English, ’75) taught for 35 years at CSU, Chico in English, honors, and multicultural and gender studies. Her research and publications include dozens of chapters, articles, and academic papers on literature, writing, feminist and multicultural theories, and LGBTQ studies and two books, one on writing and one on the Shasta Indians. Renfro retired professor emerita in 2010.
Serving Those Who Have Served
In an upper-division recreation course, students spent much of fall 2012 organizing the Honoring Our Vets event. “They dedicated not only class time but also their own personal time outside of class,” says coordinator Madelyn Rainey. Campus vets themselves were active in the event. “The public display of Chico State’s support for vets matters a lot,” says former Marine and 2012 Student Veterans Office President James Callas.
For veteran and Professor Emeritus Bob Main, the University’s vision of “lifelong learning” describes both his own experiences in education and his dedication to service, going back more than 50 years and including a 22-year military career. Retired from the Department of Communication Design, Main is now in his 10th year as a volunteer peer leader at Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. Main’s standing-room-only classes in communication ethics and current events provide a forum for participants to explore topics like how public perceptions of U.S. wars are shaped.
Though Sonja Malhoski initially signed on for a single CAVE weekend trip to the Veterans Home of California in Yountville, she ended up taking half a dozen weekends to spend time with the vets. One visit, a veteran shyly pulled out a photo album, opening it to show her “the actual negatives of the famous Iwo Jima photos.” Malhoski, daughter of a Vietnam vet, remembers, “I had tears in my eyes looking at this piece of history before me.”
Reflecting on her 350 or so volunteer hours as a student, the recent alum says that at first “I thought these opportunities were only going to benefit the population I served.” But she realized before too long “how much it does for me, too. I feel like I celebrate diversity, inclusion, equality, and community every time I volunteer.”
(BA, Recreation Administration, ’82), a former firefighter/EMT, is an insurance agent with New York Life in San Diego.
(BA, Journalism, ’01) is a partner at FSB Core Strategies, a public relations firm in Sacramento.
(MA, Kinesiology, ’06) is the head athletic trainer at Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo.