Partnerships help student volunteers build strong communities

WSU students harvested food this fall at Pullman’s Koppel Farms to support the Community Action Center Pantry.

More than 7,000 students across the Washington State University system seek volunteer opportunities every year, and the Center for Civic Engagement (CCE) is key to helping them find organizations where they can make a difference. As CCE celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, it is shining light on how students are transforming communities across the state, as well as the critical role community partners play in creating impactful volunteer opportunities for them.

Whether WSU students are coaching youth sports, helping people access healthy food, or creating green spaces in urban communities, CCE Director Ben Calabretta says they are helping to improve the lives of thousands of people throughout the state every year.

“Community engagement is not just about volunteering,” Calabretta said. “It is about helping communities become stronger by finding solutions to the challenges they face.”

Building pathways for student volunteers

Helping students find the right community partner for them takes a team effort. Community Partnerships Coordinator Meg Pannkuk and four undergraduate community partnership assistants regularly reach out to more than 700 current and potential partners to assess their volunteer needs and build pathways for connecting them with student volunteers. A dozen project leaders, also undergraduates, help transport students to select volunteer sites, teach best practices for performing community service, and handle risk management issues.

“Our goal is to remove any barriers for both our students and community partners to make the volunteer process as easy as possible,” Pannkuk said. “So many of our partnerships have lasted for years largely because we have dedicated resources for this effort, and we’ve been able to stay closely connected with our partners.”

One of CCE’s longest partnerships is with Pullman Parks & Recreation, which provides sporting opportunities for more than 700 kids every year.

Volunteer & Outreach Coordinator DJ Mackie relies heavily on CCE and its online volunteer management platform, GivePulse, to secure enough WSU students to serve as team coaches. CCE saves him a lot of time and effort by managing volunteer signups and tracking volunteer hours, Mackie said, noting that youth sports in its current form would not be possible in Pullman without CCE.

“We aim to provide opportunities for every kid in town,” Mackie said. “Without the WSU students, we could not support as many teams and fewer kids could be involved in our program.”

Paige Collins, the executive director of the Council on Aging and Human Resources based in Colfax, Wash., said WSU students are critical to keeping 13 food pantries throughout Whitman County stocked with nutritious food.

“The food pantries, including the Cougar Food Pantry in the CUB, help feed over 3,700 people every month,” Collins said. “The work our student volunteers do such as unloading food trucks, helping with food drives, and assisting in the food banks is critical to making that happen.”

CCE has always been an important connector between WSU students and the Friends of Trees organization, according to Jenny Bedell-Stiles, its volunteer outreach manager. Located in the Vancouver area, Friends of Trees utilizes several dozen students from WSU Vancouver every year to help plant trees in the Clark County region.

“Without CCE, I don’t think the students would have a good grasp of what to expect during their volunteer experience, or even where to go,” she said. “To have such a trusted resource in CCE is invaluable to the work we do.”

Calabretta said CCE earns the trust of its partners by always being there to help them. Staff regularly talk with organizations about volunteer ideas and are willing do whatever they can to bridge the gap between WSU students and community agencies that need help. When partnerships are successful, it is a win-win for everyone involved.

“We have a long history of working with community organizations,” Calabretta said. “We take a lot of pride in bringing people together and building relationships that make lasting impacts.”

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