Chipping in — Volunteer event connects students with community as program aims to improve efficiency
Volunteer programs on campus such as Make a Difference Day and Paint the Palouse serve a vital role in connecting students with the community, but the organization of these programs can be difficult and challenging.
Paint the Palouse, a volunteer event sponsored by University of Idaho Housing, is a community-outreach program focused on painting the houses of those who are financially or physically unable to do so. The event has accumulated an average turnout of 200 students for the past two years, Paint the Palouse Coordinator Luci Sanchez said.
More than enough
The most recent Paint the Palouse event took place on Sept. 15. Two hundred students painted two local homes. Although it was successful, the planning and execution of the program isn’t without its problems, Sanchez said.
“One of our biggest problems with volunteers, there isn’t enough for them to do,” Sanchez said.
When there are so many students painting so few houses, there is not enough work for all of the students during the project, Sanchez said. Even though it seems there are too many volunteers, Sanchez said they don’t plan on limiting the amount of students allowed to sign up for the event.
“I think our biggest problem with it is where people sign up and then don’t show up,” Sanchez said.
“We don’t want to turn volunteers away if we have that many who are not going to show up.”
UI sophomore Sydney Hege volunteered at Paint the Palouse and said her overall experience with the program was extremely positive, but she felt there were too many volunteers for it to be as efficient as it could be.
“This year and the previous year, we had a large amount of volunteers, almost too many,” Hege said. “It would be nice to have some alternative activities for volunteers to help with at the locations, like landscaping or fun outdoor games.”
Still, Hege said, this program is a great way for students to get connected with the community.
Another volunteer, UI senior Peter Ritter, echoed similar sentiments. He said there seemed to be some problems with enough supplies for the volunteers.
“(This) mostly seemed to stem from the ‘come one, come all’ set-up of the whole project, with many people showing up on Saturday morning without signing up beforehand so it’s really hard to know just how many paintbrushes and ladders need to be ordered,” Ritter said. “That basically ended up giving a lot of people nothing to do, which is never good for a giant service project like that.”
Sanchez said the number of houses they paint is dependent on the budget, which was limited this year.
“Our budget depends on how many donations we get from (residence) halls, Greek communities and local businesses in Moscow,” Sanchez said. “We didn’t have a lot of time to advertise for donations (this year).”
Although breakfast and lunch coupons are provided to the volunteers, along with T-shirts and water, Sanchez said most of the budget goes toward purchasing the paint. A little more than 50 percent of the budget was spent on paint and supplies with $862.42 going toward paint and $150 toward painting supplies, according to the Paint the Palouse budget for fall 2012. However, 39 percent of the budget, or $780, was utilized to purchase T-shirts with another $200 used to purchase food for the volunteers. The budget information for 2010 and 2011 was unavailable.
“(Cutting down on food and shirt budget) is something that we’ve talked about,” Sanchez said. “But as much as we want to paint as many houses as possible, one of our biggest issues as well was coming up with applicants to paint their houses.”
Maureen Ward, previous assistant director of student engagement, advised students who organized past Paint the Palouse events and helped transition the program to the new adviser in 2011. Ward said she had addressed the budget concerns with incoming supervisors.
“It was getting more expensive every year,” Ward said. “But between feeding the volunteers and making sure we had all the supplies and the paint, it was becoming more expensive in the way that we were doing it. That was another thing we had suggested they take a look at — this is a great program, but how can we make it cheaper while not sacrificing the overall quality of the program.”
Only five applications for residents who wanted their homes painted were received for the most recent Paint the Palouse, with some of those applications being ineligible for liability reasons.
“Sometimes we have the problem with residents who can’t afford to fix different things on their houses,” Sanchez said. “So that becomes a safety or liability issue for us to go in and paint.”
Sanchez said they put applications out all around the community including the chamber of commerce, local businesses, the UI campus, churches, hospitals, the Moscow-Pullman Daily News and through social media.
“One of the things we are trying to figure out is why people don’t apply,” Sanchez said.
Ward said they also struggled with resident applications during her involvement with the program. She said they had begun seriously investigating other avenues for advertising the applications when she left the university, including looking into the different government programs that service the elderly and lower-income families in order to reach people utilizing those services.
“We could leave our applications with them or educate those offices about our program so they could potentially pass the word along,” Ward said. “We were also trying to look at whether we wanted to keep the program strictly in Idaho. I know in the past, and in the year that I was there, we did do a house in Washington and we were trying to figure out if we wanted to continue to do that.”
Although it seems the process of reaching the right applicants is a work-in-progress, Sanchez said they are continually working to improve the program and to fix some of the issues they have.
Despite the challenges, many university organized community service projects are considered successful based on the feedback from the community.
“We get so much positive feedback from the community after the event and people start calling early summer to have volunteers for Make a Difference Day,” Laura Exley said. “So from the feedback we get from the community, our students do a really good job and really help out and a lot of community members depend on us.”
Exley, UI senior, and Tony Ive are the coordinators of Make a Difference Day and Saturday of Service, two other student volunteer days sponsored by ASUI. These two events generally have 350 and 450 volunteers, respectively. Students are divided into groups and sent to different volunteer sites within the community, ranging from retirement homes to food banks.
Exley said sometimes they run into an obstacle, such as last year when the contact person from one of the sites failed to show up and the volunteers had to be sent elsewhere. Ive said sometimes issues arise at new sites.
“The sites we’ve been at for awhile have a better system set up,” Ive said. “Sometimes if it’s a brand new location we are still trying to figure things out. So we work to try and train our site leaders to handle those situations.”
Exley said the important thing is to not get hung up on the number of volunteers you have.
“It’s not about the numbers, even if we even get a couple people involved that’s progress,” Exley said. “So the thing is to not get hung up on making it all work out perfectly, it’s about making even just a little difference.”
Make a Difference Day and Saturday of Service aim to connect students with the community, which is a goal Paint the Palouse shares. Sanchez said they will be able to accomplish this even more efficiently as they continue to improve the program.
Kaitlin Moroney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org