First Person: Making a Difference
The rain fell in steady sheets and turned dirt into mud. The mud stuck to our boots with every step, and it also stuck to the wheelbarrows, threatening to tip both barrow and driver at any moment. Wet, cold and dirty, we nonetheless were satisfied with our decision to spend a Saturday morning volunteering in Walla Walla for Make A Difference Day.
The annual Make A Difference Day effort is a “national day of doing good,” according to the project’s website. That day, my fellow Whitties and I were among the more than three million volunteers across the country who leant a hand in our communities.
Whitman has participated in the effort for more than 10 years. This year the college placed 110 student volunteers at 13 different projects around Walla Walla, on Oct. 27. Whitman’s Student Engagement Center coordinates the project.
I led a trail rehabilitation project along Mill Creek, which flows through Walla Walla. My day began in the Reid Ballroom at 8 a.m., where Community Service student interns and Student Engagement Center staff members greeted me. As volunteers arrived, the room began to hum with sleepy, hungry students who had chosen to devote their Saturday morning to service. After most of the volunteers had filtered in, Lawson Knight, executive director of the Blue Mountain Community Foundation, addressed the group about the elements of a healthy community.
Knight spoke about “social capital,” the idea that a student can generate and receive a gift by volunteering, meeting someone new and connecting Whitman to other organizations in the local community.
After the event kick-off, Mill Creek Trail Rehab, a group of seven volunteers including myself, set out for the Mill Creek Flood Control Project office. The project description stated that we would “assist with trail work – installing retaining blocks, moving gravel and vegetation removal.” Beyond that, I had simply been told to meet Park Ranger Chris Alford at the Flood Control Project office.
We learned that the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers had created The Mill Creek Flood Control System after a massive flood caused extensive damage to downtown Walla Walla in the 1930s. By the 1960s, the Flood Control Project began to also focus on recreation, and since then, rangers and employees have built a variety of areas for public use, including hiking trails. However, the amount of labor needed to maintain these trails often exceeds the staff's capacity.
“These trails need routine maintenance, which the Mill Creek staff cannot always get to,” Alford said. “We rely heavily on volunteers to help … Make A Difference Day is a part of this maintenance to ensure that the trails are not a muddy mess.”
When we reached the trail we were scheduled to upgrade, we found mud. We immediately brought out the wheelbarrows, began moving dirt and transferred long pieces of landscaping timber, which we hammered into place. Once the timber was set, we laid plastic on the trail and poured gravel over the plastic. The final task was to rake and smooth the gravel so it was even enough for walking and riding bikes.
“Sometimes community service can be a bit exhausting,” said Joli Holmes ’16, of Bainbridge Island, Wash., “but with a group of other students like ours, it was really fun.”
Alford said he believes that student groups should engage in service projects throughout their communities, especially when the service directly benefits students. Through their work, volunteers made an investment in the Mill Creek trails.
“It is great to see young people get involved early and often,” Alford said. “As people do get involved and volunteer, they take some ownership of their public lands, which in turn lets them help influence how the land is utilized and developed, or not developed.
“There is an old saying that always comes to mind when we are talking about volunteer events: ‘It’s your land, lend a hand.’”
About the Author:
Molly Emmett ’15 is a playwright and English major from Long Beach, Calif., who plans to become an English teacher.