Adaptation has been the name of the game this fall at Ohio Northern University, and that goes for community service as well. One of the hallmarks of the student experience at ONU is service. On average, approximately 1,500 students volunteer roughly 50,000 hours of community service on a given year, and the University plays a significant role in connecting students with causes.
Obviously, the coronavirus pandemic has changed things this year, but ONU Religious Life is adapting its service opportunities to ensure that students can safely serve. On Sept. 2-3, they hosted webinars on contactless and virtual service opportunities to inform students of ways they can still help their communities and beyond.
“Credit our students. They still want to help. They still want to serve even in this environment,” says ONU Chaplain David MacDonald. “I’ve gotten so many requests for volunteer opportunity ideas this fall that I decided to put together this webinar. The interest has been that great.”
The webinar included three categories of service opportunities. Opportunities for individual volunteers are available for any students who wish to serve outside of any organization or club. Group opportunities sponsored by ONU Religious Life or other offices at ONU are available to the whole campus. And finally, group opportunities for organizations are available for established student groups or clubs who typically do service projects as part of their chapter’s philanthropy mission.
MacDonald found national and local volunteer opportunities – both online and in-person – for all three categories. For students who want to roll up their sleeves and impact the community directly, local churches have reached out to ONU for help with cleaning and grounds maintenance. Later this fall, ONU’s Habitat for Humanity chapter will open their annual leaf raking service to more students on campus. Don’t be surprised if Ada is one of the tidiest small towns in Ohio come November.
MacDonald stressed the importance of COVID-19 safety guidelines for all students physically volunteering in the community. Even though they may be off campus, the same rules that have kept the University safe this fall still apply. All students and student groups must first fill out the online campus travel form that informs the administration of student movements off campus, even right here in Ada. Students are also required to wear masks, practice social distancing, (politely) refuse any food or drinks from homeowners and not enter any residences. He acknowledged that it might be hard to say “no” to gestures of gratitude in the form of fresh-baked cookies or other treats, but then, what is service without sacrifice?
The most abundant service opportunities are online. Numerous national and international organizations already exist in this space, and MacDonald highlighted a few of them in the webinar such as VolunteerMatch, Catchafire.org, Zooniverse, DoSomething.org, Points of Life and Bookshare. These organizations run the gamut from skills-based volunteer matching, to ideas for local DIY projects, professional support for non-profits and group-sourced projects such as transcribing Shakespearean works or comparing star charts.
For ONU students, many of these opportunities can offer an educational benefit, particularly the ones that are skills-based. For example, design students can volunteer to create a brochure for a non-profit. An English major can volunteer to proofread transcriptions of works in the public domain that are being converted into e-books. Theatre and music majors can perform for seniors in assisted living communities via video conferencing technology. A history major can become a digital volunteer for the Smithsonian. In a way, limits to traditional, local service my result in more students finding the right fit for them when it comes to volunteering because there are so many online options.
Regardless of how ONU students find a way to serve this year, the spirit of selflessness and service to others will go on. It is just too deeply engrained in Ohio Northern for it to be any other way.