Now that places like senior centers, public schools, museums, and parks are gradually increasing operations, Washington State University’s Center for Civic Engagement is getting ready for an increase in service-learning opportunities for students.

It is already hiring more student staff to serve as project leaders in the fall when volunteer opportunities will be at their peak. It’s just one example of the many ways WSU campuses are working to provide students with more in-person experiences.

Ben Calabretta, associate director of CCE, said it is an exciting time for students who are seeking more opportunities to engage with their communities.

“At WSU there is a culture of service,” Calabretta said. “One of the students’ first instincts when the pandemic hit was to ask how they can help their communities.”

‘Helping communities get stronger’

As an office whose mission is to help Washington State University students get into the community for service-learning, CCE has faced some unique challenges and unexpected opportunities during the pandemic.

“Once we realized this was going to be a long-term situation, we talked about wanting to be part of the solution instead of just waiting for the pandemic to end,” Calabretta said. “We wanted to help communities get stronger.”

CCE has been helping students volunteer virtually during the pandemic, but with warmer weather and increasing vaccine distribution, it is aiming to safely get more students out into their communities. There will be many opportunities to do that as part of National Virtual Volunteer Week April 19-23, which includes Earth Day on April 22.

CCE-led projects will include trail maintenance at the Palouse Clearwater Environmental Institute, giving virtual museum tours to local senior citizens, painting and assembling shelving at the Inland Oasis Food Pantry, and putting together projects and displays at the Palouse Discovery Science Center. A comprehensive list of available projects can be found on CCE’s GivePulse website.

“We are embracing a call to action for students to get involved to make a positive impact in their community and for a cause they care about,” said Tiffanie Braun, assistant director of CCE. “There is a wide range of ways to do that both in-person and across the state.”

Gaining an ‘outside perspective’

WSU Global Campus senior Matt Wyatt had no idea he would make a huge impact on children and his community when he signed up for Professor Mary Stohr’s Violence Toward Women criminal justice class. Despite the challenges brought about by the pandemic, Stohr thought it was important to keep the service-learning requirement for her class even if her students were unable to find a volunteer opportunity related to the course content. She worked with CCE to make it happen.

“Criminal justice is not just about protecting people and catching criminals – it’s also about providing service to the public,” Stohr said.  “It’s good for our students to have experiences that open their eyes to the different needs of communities across the state.”

Wyatt found a service-learning project with Camp Korey through CCE. Camp Korey is located near Mount Vernon, Wash., and works to empower children living with serious medical conditions and their families. The project called for volunteers to assemble a few craft kits for camp participants.

Wyatt set a goal of making 5 craft kits, before quickly bumping it up to 15. The next morning, he posted the project on Facebook, asking if anyone else would like to get involved.

People from all over the world responded. Kits rolled into Wyatt’s home in rural Waitsburg, Wash., from places like Los Angeles and Australia. A woman in Florida sent money. Friends of Wyatt filled their car with 25 kits and drove 5 hours to drop them off at his house. In all, he collected close to 500 kits.

Wyatt said the impact the project has had on him is ongoing. Shortly after completing the kits, he placed a box outside his church where people can donate and pick up food. By the end of 2020, over five tons of food had filled what is known as the Blessing Box. Recently, someone who heard about Wyatt’s work with Camp Korey shipped 50,000 pounds of fresh food to Waitsburg and asked him to help distribute it to those in need.

“Especially during the pandemic, we get so self-absorbed with ‘Woe is me, I’m in this funk, and things aren’t getting back to normal,’” Wyatt said. “The Camp Korey project caused me to look outside of that perspective and realize that my struggles pale in comparison to those other people may be experiencing.”

It is stories like Wyatt’s that keep the CCE team energized and excited about providing more service-learning opportunities in the months ahead.

Editor’s note: This article is part of a WSU Insider series spotlighting the careful, phased re-opening of WSU’s residential campus in Pullman as it prepares for the return to in-person instruction.