Experiencing service firsthand
Every year since 1999, on a weekend during the first few weeks of school, more than 1,000 Washington University freshmen put on grungy t-shirts, slather themselves with sunscreen and board school buses bound for elementary schools around the St. Louis area. For several hours, they paint, refinish and clean the schools, beautifying them for the return of students. While this community service is not mandatory, the vast majority of the incoming class generally elects to go. They bond with their floors, make a difference for schoolchildren in their new community and get sunburned and covered in paint. It’s overall an excellent experience.
As I am a member of the Class of 2017, I participated in Service First this past Saturday. My group was assigned to Kennard Junior Classical Academy, a magnet school for gifted students. It was an older building, with broken water fountains on every floor and stairs that seemed too tall for elementary schoolers to navigate comfortably. Wildlife murals decorated the plaster-over-brick walls and the stage in the gym still bore the vestiges of a set from a production of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” We were mostly there to paint. Some of the projects involved retouching chipped paint, but most of them revolved around creating new murals. I volunteered to help create a map of the United States on the playground. The location coordinators gave us supplies, a map to work off of, some vague directions about technique and let us go to it.
It was hot, sweaty, dirty work. We spent four hours, in temperatures of nearly 100 degrees, chalking lines, squiggling approximations of borders and smearing paint into dips in the asphalt. In the end, Louisiana was a train wreck, Texas was too skinny, my legs were covered in paint and I was exhausted. However, the sense of accomplishment was immense. We, a group of about two dozen 18-year-olds, had made something. Something that would maybe, hopefully, make a difference.
The Service First program was pioneered by Stephanie Kurtzman, the current director of the Community Service Office and associate director of the Gephardt Institute for Public Service. This is the 13th year that the program is working with public schools (in its first year, students did trail cleanup), and Kurtzman sees it as a resounding success. Over the years, students have done hundreds of projects in dozens of schools, from painting and cleaning to mulching and weeding outdoor spaces.
“We really have stayed responsive to what the schools are asking of us,” Kurtzman said. “We’re really meeting needs in the schools.”
It’s not just beneficial for schools, though. Kurtzman has high hopes for the experiences of Wash. U. students on the Service First trips.
“I hope that [students] will have met more people, feel more comfortable socially with friends, have a good time. I hope that they looked at a school and learned or were reminded that not everyone has an equal education in the United States,” she said. “I hope that they feel an inspiration and an access to getting involved in community service in a way that makes sense for them.”
Kurtzman emphasized that Service First shouldn’t just check the “service” box on a college to-do list. She encourages everyone to remain involved. “If you’re wanting to be involved in community service, there’s something here for you,” she said.
She wants Service First to continue as a program that promotes the culture of service on the University campus.
“It sets that tone that community service is part of what we do at Washington University,” Kurtzman said. “It’s just part and parcel of being a Wash. U. student.”