In years past, the MLK Day of Service at the University Missouri–St. Louis has meant a variety of in-person volunteering efforts such as landscaping, remodeling houses for low-income families, tutoring and more.
However, this is the second year that the Office of Student Involvement at UMSL has had to pivot and brainstorm how students, staff and faculty could give back safely during the ongoing pandemic.
To organize this year’s event, Foram Patel, graduate assistant for service in the Office of Student Involvement, leaned on her colleagues’ experiences planning past MLK Day of Service events.
“Since last year’s MLK Day of Service was virtual, I was able to gain a lot of guidance from Michaela Wells, who served as the graduate assistant last year,” Patel said. “I was able to see the pros and cons of last year’s MLK Day of Service and took that into consideration, from planning on how I will hand out the supplies to the UMSL community to how many service sites I should pick for this year.”
Similar to last year’s event, Patel arranged six virtual service projects to make change in St. Louis: upcycling dog toys for Gateway Pet Guardians, upcycling cat toys for Tenth Life Cat Rescue, assembling service-to-go kits for LifeWise StL, creating origami “soul boxes” for the St. Louis Arts Chamber of Commerce, making fleece tie blankets for St. Louis Crisis Nursery and writing hope notes for the St. Louis Area Food Bank.
UMSL provided all necessary supplies for the projects, and volunteers started working on them from the comfort and safety of their homes last week.
Patel aimed to work with a variety of organizations and provide service projects that would appeal to a wide range of UMSL community members. Leading up to the event, she reached out to numerous organizations in the St. Louis region. About 10 contacted her with potential service projects, and she picked the most engaging activities from the bunch.
Part of a national initiative, UMSL’s event is in its 14th year. The idea behind the day is for volunteers to see firsthand how small efforts can make an impact on their communities. This year’s event looks different than past MLK Days of Service, but Patel hopes that volunteers can still make a difference.
“This year, I hope the UMSL community will learn new skills, explore their interests and lastly, have fun by volunteering,” Patel said.
Jennifer McKanry, assistant director of the Center for Teaching and Learning, said service has been a regular part of her life, but the pandemic has limited volunteer opportunities.
“With the pandemic I have been less involved in volunteer work than I normally would be, and I saw this as a great way with flexibility around a challenging schedule to do something to give back,” she said. “I always love doing volunteer work when I can fit it into my very busy schedule. I love helping out where I can and knowing I have made a difference.”
For Erin Hart, senior graphic designer for University Marketing and Communications, the MLK Day of Service was a chance to support a cause close to her. Hart said that she is consistently inspired by the good work of animal rescue organizations in St. Louis. When she saw that Tenth Life Cat Rescue was on the list service projects, she was motivated to participate.
“I chose to help Tenth Life, a cat rescue in my neighborhood, because I wanted to do a small part to support their mission to save and rehome stray cats,” she said. “I hope that by starting the year off with a project for an organization that is close to our hearts, my family can begin doing more service work on a regular basis.”
Patel, who is working toward a master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling and holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology, previously worked in the Office of Student Involvement as a desk attendant. Her experience in the office has helped her grow as a leader and prepared her to take on the vital role of planning the MLK Day of Service. She noted that this year’s virtual event presented a challenge, but it was one she was more than willing to tackle.
“Planning the MLK Day of Service was very interesting,” she said. “I have attended two MLK Day of Services when they were in person, and it was a great experience. Growing up, I have always been passionate about helping others and volunteering whenever I can, so when I heard that this was one of the projects that I would get a chance to plan, I was very excited.”