Volunteering Connects Students to Community

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It was during a visit to a homeless shelter that Lisa Thornsberry realized why her volunteer efforts were worthwhile.  

“I spoke with a man who had become homeless after losing his house and possessions in a fire,” said the fourth-year Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering major.

A few months earlier, Thornsberry’s brother had lost his house in a fire, and she realized that the homeless man could have easily been her brother.

“It was at that moment that I realized that the people I serve through volunteering aren’t so different from me,” she added. “Everyone has their times of need, and being there for each other during those times is what being a community is all about.”

According to the Office of Community Service, Georgia Tech students engaged in 68,527 community service hours from July 2010 to June 2011.

Recently, The Whistle spoke with Thornsberry and two other students about their experiences volunteering in the community. Here’s what they shared.

Lisa Thornsberry, Mobilizing Opportunities for Volunteer Experiences

As a high school student, Thornsberry discovered volunteering through her involvement with National Honor Society and Beta Club. When she arrived at Tech, she wanted to work with children who had developmental disabilities but couldn’t find any organizations that would allow her to do so.

“At the beginning of my second semester, Mobilizing Opportunities for Volunteer Experiences (MOVE) allowed me to start a committee to plan service activities I was interested in, and through the organization I’ve had the opportunity to work on a variety of service projects,” said Thornsberry, who is now MOVE’s president.  

Thornsberry’s volunteer work has also had connections to her coursework while at Tech. She took a Spanish service learning course as a component of her Spanish minor, and as part of the course, met with an elderly Cuban woman for two hours each week.

“She lived alone, so I would go to keep her company,” Thornsberry said. “Maria expressed to me many times how grateful she was for my company, and spending time with her gave me the opportunity to practice my Spanish skills with a native speaker.”

When Thornsberry graduates, she’s not sure what kind of volunteer work she’ll take on next.

“But I know that wherever I am, I will find some way to give back,” she added.

Ethan Speir, English Avenue Youth Enrichment Program

Since high school, Speir, a fourth-year biology major, has been interested in volunteering to work with children. When he arrived at Tech, a friend suggested that he get involved with the English Avenue Youth Enrichment Program (YEP), of which he is now president.

Every Friday, Speir and the other members visit the Bellwood Boys and Girls Club, about two miles away from campus, for two hours. Sometimes they play games such as dodge-ball, while other visits focus on problem- solving activities designed to help teach the 10- to 12-year-olds life skills.

“Volunteering keeps me grounded, because it’s easy to lose focus of what’s going on in the community beyond Tech when you are so immersed in your research and what will happen when you graduate,” he said. “When I get to Bellwood, I leave everything else going on in life at the door.”  

When he graduates this summer, Speir intends to put his 12 years or trumpet playing to good use by volunteering for Bugles Across America, an organization that arranges for musicians to play “Taps” at military funerals.

Tomas Leon, Mobilizing Opportunities for Volunteer Experiences

Like Speir, Leon, a fourth-year environmental engineering major, started volunteering as a freshman because a mentor encouraged him to get involved with service in Atlanta. He is now chair of MOVE’s Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Committee.

Leon’s MOVE committee participates in a variety of service projects, including Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week, March 4-8. (Click here for more information about the week’s events.)

One cause that has become particularly meaningful to Leon is the work that he does with the Central Night Shelter, serving homeless men.

“I love stories and, volunteering here, I’m always hearing life stories,” Leon said. “For example, I’ve met people who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, and it’s amazing to hear their stories.”

Leon and his fellow volunteers work at the shelter most weeks for a 12-hour shift from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. (they create a shift schedule, so no one has to stay awake the entire evening), serving food and taking care of any other tasks the shelter might need.

“The challenge with volunteering is that sometimes it can feel like we’re just putting a bandage on these huge social issues, because they are so complex,” Leon said. “I hope that going forward, I might be able to have more influence on the policy side of these problems.”



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