During this year’s National Volunteer Week (April 18-24), the staff at Pitt Serves is coordinating activities to keep the Pitt community busy.
And even throughout the pandemic, Pitt Serves Assistant Director Shenay Jeffrey said there has been an enthusiastic turnout of student volunteers. Popular projects have ranged from assisting at food banks to virtually tutoring Pittsburgh Public School students at the United Way Learning Hubs. Some 1,500 students participated in last October’s Civic Action Week.
Senior Eric Chiu, a health and rehabilitation sciences major, likes to volunteer at Pittsburgh’s urban farms. He created dried soup packets at Manchester’s Growing Together Farm and cleared land and built planting beds at farms in the East Liberty, Hazelwood and Mt. Oliver neighborhoods. Through TreeVitalize Pittsburgh, Chiu helped plant hundreds of trees along the North Shore and directly in front of Heinz Field.
“There’s something uniquely rewarding about volunteering in a hands-on labor-intensive project like gardening,” said Chiu. “When the project is finished, you can always sense a feeling of accomplishment and optimism in the group which is an amazing experience.”
Pitt’s Office of Community and Governmental Relations has gathered a list of featured opportunities taking place this week, including crafting no-sew blanks for children in the hospital, making phone calls with Vaccinate PA and special Earth Day activities. They’ll also be sharing profiles of Pitt people in action.
Junior Samantha Huynh, another health and rehab major, also prefers the outdoors and enjoys helping Friends of Southside Parks. Her favorite part? “To connect quickly with a stranger who is also passionate about serving.”
Another popular activity for students throughout the pandemic was tutoring—assisting students from the Northside, Hazelwood, Homewood and other neighborhoods with math, science and other subjects. Through that work, Jeffrey noted the students were able to see firsthand how direct volunteering may even impact policy. For example, the students were able to see just how many households in some neighborhoods lacked internet access.
“Our student volunteers could learn and grow right alongside the community and see the resilience and strength of the people,” she said. Jeffrey said volunteering during a public health crisis says a lot about how humans respond to one another. “The pandemic heightened what was already there,” she said.
Faculty and staff contributions
More than 800 Pitt faculty and staff members began calling last spring to participate in the Pitt Pandemic Service Initiative, an institution-wide effort to fill the gaps of unmet needs.
Alex Toner, assistant director of community engagement in the Office of Community and Governmental Relations, said volunteers stepped up to take part in more than 30 opportunities.
“They leveraged big hearts and broad expertise,” he said.
Toner said the pandemic has reminded the Pitt community of how important service is to our mission. “It’s highlighted how necessary it is to strengthen and deepen our commitment to working with community partners to address challenges that simply won’t go away when everyone is vaccinated,” he said.
In fact, Toner thinks even more Pitt staff and faculty volunteers will be needed after the pandemic ends. He encourages the Pitt community to subscribe to the Pitt in Action newsletter and to continue to take part in a “culture of service across the Pitt campus.”
Just some of the faculty and staff efforts:
- An initiative called Beyond the Laptops, in which Pitt donated 599 laptops and funding to help provide families with tech devices.
- A full-time Community Tech Help Desk for the region which offered free assistance and was staffed by 30 volunteers.
- Work by Community Engagement Fellows and students from the School of Social Work who fanned out across Homewood, providing tech assistance and help with remote learning.
- Helping Farmers to Families distribute some 6,000 pounds of food across six sites in Allegheny County last fall.