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'The Big Event' connects UD students to Newark through service

Though some won’t be calling Newark their home for much longer, nearly 200 University of Delaware students came together Saturday for a service project to give back to the community they’ve lived in for the past few years.

Groups of students cleaned up playground equipment, picked up trash, laid mulch, washed windows, cleaned classrooms and more through The Big Event, a community service program in its pilot year at the university.

“I felt like there was student apathy in general toward their surrounding environment,” said Jaime Renman, a senior and the executive director of The Big Event. “And we do want to shed light that students do care about where they live, especially if this is their home away from home, like to treat this really as their home.”

Renman, who is from Pennsylvania, said that throughout her college career, she has participated in service trips that take students to different communities around the country.

“We’re promoting in these other programs to get to know your community, what are the assets, what are the challenges and really get that person-to-person relationship, to feel responsibility to that community,” she said. “I just didn’t feel that with Newark, despite having that feeling with other, different communities.”

She wanted to change that, so she started the process of establishing The Big Event during her junior year.

The Big Event is a national organization that began at Texas A&M in 1986. Since then, other colleges have introduced their own chapters that all strive to connect the university population to the surrounding community.

Over the summer, Renman established an executive board of student leaders. Throughout the year, the board connected with nonprofits in Newark to set up volunteering opportunities.

“I feel like there’s such a lacking between the connection, but we use so many resources in the community,” said Madi Mucha, marketing coordinator for the event. “I hike in the parks and I go to the grocery stores and everything. I don’t get super involved in the community, but I’m still taking a lot from the community. And I think it’s really important that you’re aware of other people living there, too.”

Throughout the year, the group organized Service Saturdays, partnering with groups like Lori’s Hands and Brae’s Brown Bags, and helped clean up the outdoor classroom at UD’s Lab School.

The group also hosted community members as speakers on campus in order to connect students with different residents.

All of that led up to Saturday, when the students were at seven sites around the city, helping complete projects for community organizations.

“My hope for myself and for other students is that we gain a better understanding of the community around us and gain more respect for it, as well as understanding how much work is put into upkeep and keeping the community clean and looking nice,” Mucha said. “We take that for granted how nice our community is.”

At the Newark Senior Center, students worked outside, weeding and cleaning windows, and inside, tidying up classrooms.

“I’ve been here 10 years and this is the most vibrant, enthusiastic and energetic group that I’ve ever had to work with here,” said Wendell Davis, director of facilities at the senior center. “They seem like they love what they’re doing. They are engaged. And it’s just been a joy to work with them.”

Kelly Riale, volunteer coordinator for the senior center, agreed.

“It’s important for the University of Delaware students to know the community that surrounds them,” she said. “Not a lot of these students even knew much about the Newark Senior Center, so they got a chance to know how important we are to the 50-plus community and all the resources and programs we provide for growth for the 50-plus community.”

Senior Andrew Ames, juniors Brenda Juarez and Chor Lam and freshman Jessica Shih, who were helping by cleaning up classrooms in the senior center, echoed the sentiment that it was important to get involved and know their community better.

“I’m involved in a lot of service,” Lam said. “I’m from Delaware, and I want to be involved with my home community.”

At the George Wilson Center, other students laid mulch around the playground, picked up trash and cleaned off equipment.

Freshman Jose Manuel Lanzona said it was exciting to see the event come to fruition.

“As a Newark local, I want to open my community to UD,” he said. “I think it will act as a bridge to connect the two communities.”

Junior Kaitlyn Sherman said that she has participated in off-campus service events through UD’s alternative break program but wanted to get involved more in Newark.

“I thought it was interesting and liked how it was giving back to the local community,” she said. “It’s important for me to get more involved in the Newark community because I got to school here.”

Saturday’s volunteer effort also drew some longtime community members, like Jim and Carol McKelvey, who heard about The Big Event and wanted to pitch in.

“They were so warm and welcoming, and they are sharp kids,” Jim McKelvey said. “The gang today has been great fun. It’s very rewarding to participate in giving back, and it’s nice to do it together, working side by side.”

He said that, through shoveling mulch and working together, he learned about the students’ backgrounds and aspirations.

“It’s very nice,” he said. “I’m very encouraged by what I see in the student population.”

Renman said The Big Event will become an annual event and said she hopes it will grow to involve more volunteers and additional service opportunities.

“[I hope we] expand our networks and reach, just being able to forge a relationship with Parks and Rec and city council and the mayor and The Newark Partnership or any other sort of entity to be like, ‘We are an established group, and we really think the community matters, and we’re grateful for the surrounding community,’” she said.

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