Community Engagement Center revitalizes volunteering at UNO

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By Rhe’Ann McBride, Layout Editor

The University of Nebraska atOmaha’s Office of Civic and Social Responsibility offers students an array of volunteer opportunities from design-your-own projects to single day service programs.
Several programs operate under theOffice of Civic and Social Responsi-bility, located in the Barbara WeitzCommunity Engagement Center.One of these programs, the StudentService and Leadership Collabo-rative, is new to campus this year.
“The Collaborative was born out of the idea of serving the CEC’ s mission,” said Jacqueline Wilber,program coordinator for the Collaborative.
The CEC operates under the mis-sion of working to “enhance, expand and coordinate student volunteerism, service projects, academic service learning, and leadership development specific to community engagement and civic participation,” according to its website.
Kathleen Lyons, director of the Office of Civic and Social Responsibility, said the Collaborative is the“next tier” in service opportunities for students.
It is unlike other volunteer pr-grams in that students create theirown service projects. Wilber said currently 22 students are involved in year-long projects centered around six areas of community service:
International Service
Projects that address a combination of international and local needs.
Educational Support
Projects that work to improve educational and learning inequalities within the local community.
Social Justice
Projects that strive to eliminate un-fair and unequal social structures,specifically within underserved populations.
Environmental Stewardship
Projects that focus on improving the environment and people’s use of natural resources.
Economic Sufficiency
Projects that center around identifying the main causes of poverty and providing service to those affected by it.
Health and Wellness
Projects that aim to educate the public, primarily the elderly and other high-risk groups, on the basics of living a healthy lifestyle.
Lyons said the Collaborative pro-vides students an opportunity to develop leadership skills and to explore their passions. By organizing their own projects, students develop valuable life skills that will aid in their professional development.
“They can feed their passions andmaybe find it’s their life purpose ina professional application,” Lyonssaid.
The Office of Civic and Social Responsibility partners with over 100different non-profit organizations each year. Wilber said she encour-ages students who are interestedin volunteering through the Col-laborative to begin by investigatingcommon issues within the community before collaborating with apartner organization.
“At first, I didn’t know to beginto start to invite change into thecommunity,” Stephanie Finklea, astudent service project manager forthe Collaborative, said.
Finklea is addressing economic suf-ficiency by working with Omahaby Design, an organization locat-ed within the CEC, to survey areasthat could be converted to improvethe Benson and Ames street areas.
Finklea said she is working with the Benson-Ames Alliance of business owners to promote growth and unity within the communities.
“It felt indescribable to be around people who had the same mind-set,” Finklea said of her first time attending a Benson-Ames Alliance meeting. “They were so enthusiasticand undaunted by the challengesthey were facing.”
One way they plan to improve thesense of pride in the communitiesis through beautification projects.Finklea said Omaha by Design hasworked with several local artists tocomplete projects that help beautifythe areas.
“We hope to give people a sense ofpride in areas where there wasn’tone before,” Finklea said. “To takeon something and see the impactit has on my own community ishuge.”
Finklea and Omaha by Design are also mapping vacant lots for repurposing to try and increase foot traffic through the Benson and Ames street areas.
“Our goal is to help these areas be-come valuable marketplaces and tobring a sense of community to itsmembers,” Finklea said.
Students involved in The Collab-orative are required to log an av-erage of 10 hours a week with theprogram. Finklea said she meetsthis requirement through a com-bination of office hours and col-laborative work with communitypartners.
“It’s all about education first,” Fin-klea said regarding the program’stime requirements.
Volunteers can vary the numberof hours they put in each week to
cater to the demands of school and work schedules. Finklea said she hasn’t seen any problems with relying on the honesty of students to log their own hours.
“It gives you a sense of accountability,” Finklea said. “If you onlyput in one hour a week, how muchchange are you really making?”
The Collaborative, along with theOffice of Civic and Social Responsibility, is helping to fulfill a need within the UNO community fora wide variety of service oriented programs.
“Service is a key component to theway UNO does business,” Wilbersaid.
She said she has been impressed with UNO students’ dedication to service and the amount of service-minded people on campus, especially when students are already balancing school, extra curricular  activities and full or part-time jobs.
“We realize that working is often atrade-off for volunteering,” Wilbersaid.
If students are looking to volunteerbut don’t have the time to committo a project with the Collaborative,the Office of Civic and Social Responsibility offers a range of otheropportunities catering to students’busy schedules.
“I used to think you had to havemoney to be able to volunteer, buttime is the most valuable asset youcan give,” Finklea said.
All upcoming volunteer projects arenow available through the serviceopportunities tab on the MavSynchomepage. Lyons said this hasmade it easier for students to respond to service requests and thatis has been “magical” in addressingthe needs of organizations.
In addition to scheduled projects,the Office of Civic and Social Responsibility has onsite projectsavailable for students to do duringtheir free time. Lyons said projects like making fleece blankets orwriting letters to veterans are quickenough for students to complete inbetween classes.
“You don’t have to take a wholeday out of your time to volunteer,”Lyons said. “In just 30 minutes youcan do an onsite project or justlearn about an organization.”
The Office of Civic and Social Responsibility moved into its new offices six months ago after the CEC was completed. Lyons said receiving the new space was a validation of the worth UNO places on community service and mission work.
Since the move, existing programs have been running more smoothly and have seen an increase in volunteers. Wilber said she credits thisto the building’s easy access andinviting atmosphere to students.
“Volunteering is a huge benefit tostudents,” Wilber said. “We haveseen increased enthusiasm andhope more students will see thatthese are critical experiences.”
The Office of Civic and Social Responsibility’s most recent signature service project was in recognition of World Aids Day. Lyons said students came in planning to stay for an hour and left four hours later,excited with the opportunity to volunteer.
“At the end of the day, we hopeour students leave here committedto being engaged citizens with theability and knowledge of how tocreate positive social change,” Lyons said. “We are only limited by our imaginations, and we have very vivid imaginations.”

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