Project Serve struggles to meet demand

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

  • More than 30 agencies have requested Project Serve volunteers this year,
 including the Guelph Food Bank. (Courtesy of Project

    More than 30 agencies have requested Project Serve volunteers this year, including the Guelph Food Bank. (Courtesy of Project

Written by Greg Beneteau

A few hours of volunteering have made a big difference for residents living in Dawson-Willow, a mostly low-income neighbourhood east of downtown Guelph.

For the past five years, University of Guelph students working with Project Serve have taken part in a half day-long cleanup of a wooded area near the Onward Willow Centre, which serves families and children in the area.

Project Coordinator Lorna Schwartzentruber recalls the woods used to be thick with brush and strewn with trash, beer bottles and drug paraphernalia. “It was a mess,” she claims.

Today, the woods are clear of garbage and there's a cut path connecting the centre to a nearby park – a transformation Schwartzentruber credits to the cumulative effort of hundreds of ”young bodies” helping out for just one day a year.

“Just to be have the physical ability to undertake the project… we couldn’t have done it without students,” she says.

Onward Willow requested 100 Project Serve volunteers for their cleanup project this year. So far, only 20 have signed up.

The sudden drop in enrollment perplexes Rachel Farahbakhsh, U of G's Coordinator for Community Engaged Learning and lead organizer of Project Serve.

The annual event, which began in 1998 as a way to connect students with agencies in need of short-term volunteers, normally sees between 400 and 500 registrations in the first weeks of September.

With only 4 days until the Saturday event, Farahbakhsh estimates about 350 student have signed on, despite repeated extensions to the registration period. (The deadline has been set for midnight on Wednesday).

"We're really scratching our heads about this," Farahbakhsh admits.

She says she suspects it might have something to do with the state of the economy and the lack of available jobs for students during the summer.

"There are likely many students who are working during the semester, and possibly even on the Saturday itself."

More than 30 agencies have requested Project Serve volunteers this year, including the Guelph Food Bank, Guelph-Wellington Women in Crisis, the Guelph Enabling Garden and Michael House Pregnancy Centre.

Because of the low turnout, Farahbakhsh says she's concerned that many groups won't get the number of volunteers they really need.

To get involved, students register online for a four-hour shiftwith an organization of their choice. Trasnsportation is provided, and volunteers receive a free catered lunch as thanks.

The impact of having a large group of students help out is incalculable for organizations which usually depend on a small number of staff or volunteers to operate, says Marilyn Worobec, Executive Director of the Guelph Food Bank.

"Whether you're a food bank or some other kind of community service group, the extra hands make a difference. A phenomenal amount of work gets done," says Worobec.

The Guelph Food Bank has been partnered Project Serve from the very beginning. In that time, Worobec estimates that students have volunteered "thousands" of hours helping with everything from sorting food to constructing walls.

"We're never short on work... We have a lot of different projects going on, depending on where [students'] interests lie," she says.

The diversity of projects is what makes Project Serve unique, Farahbakhsh notes. Students can help construct a house with Habitat for Humanity, support children's learning with Spark of Brilliance at the Ignatius Jesuit Centre, or perform maintainance on a boardwalk constructed by Project Serve volunteers a decade ago for the Hanlon Creek Rehabilitation Project.

"It's almost a butterfly effect," she says. "It's only four hours work, but the impacts will be seen throughout the city, in some cases for years to come."

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