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Sudeep Kesh, a second year marketing major, paints the face of Joseph Jobson at a party organized by College of Business students at the Rochester Volunteers of America Children’s Center.

Community connections

It's a chilly Saturday morning, with a stiff breeze and intervals of freezing rain. Despite the weather, some 200 RIT students have gathered on a hillside several miles from campus to create the setting for a Halloween event for youngsters from Hillside Children's Center. They clear brush. They stuff scarecrows. They weave giant spider webs.

"All these people could have slept in," notes Dan Lerner of the RIT chapter of Phi Sigma Pi, whose organization rallied a squad of 35 for the Make-a-Difference Day work party. "But we're in Rochester. We want to be part of the community."

"We work with more than 90 agencies on a regular basis," notes Tracey Hamner Karl, RIT's community service coordinator. Karl '00 (social work) was instrumental in establishing the four-year-old Student Volunteer Center. Created as a liaison between agencies in need of help and people willing to pitch in, the center coordinates dozens of activities involving hundreds of participants every month. The center's monthly newsletter, which lists volunteer opportunities, circulates to 1,500.

RIT's Greek organizations are deeply involved in volunteer efforts. Last year, RIT fraternities and sororities contributed 15,423 hours of service and raised $37,500 for charities.

The 48 members of Phi Kappa Psi, for instance, typically log 1,500 to 1,800 volunteer hours per quarter, says James Milholland, a fifth-year physics major. Efforts include an annual dodgeball tournament organized to raise money for children who are victims of alcoholism. "We have won awards for philanthropy," Milholland explains. "Our fraternity was founded on the great joy of serving others, and we try to uphold that belief on a local level as well as nationally."

Outside of the Greek community, many of RIT's 118 clubs are involved in community service. Notable is the Habitat for Humanity Club, which lists 150 to 200 members and can readily round up 25 to 50 for weekend work sessions. Founded in 1999, the club has worked on many homes in and outside of Rochester.

"I really, really enjoy this," says Kyle Platek, a third year civil engineering technology major and coordinator of the organization.

RIT students don't wait to be asked - they go in search of ways to serve.

Jason Schwingle '00 recruited fellow College of Business students to work with the Volunteers of American Children's Center, a daycare provider for more than 250 youngsters in central Rochester.

"I loved the kids," he says. "It was definitely, positively rewarding."

Staff at the center are delighted with the connection.

"The RIT volunteers are so interactive with our kids," says Jessica Thomas, coordinator of parent and community involvement. "It's wonderful for our kids to have positive role models, especially males."

Geoff Irwin, a third-year management information services major, has picked up the project from Schwingle. "It's just so much fun," he says.

"When I go there, it's a relief from stress for me. I get to be a 5-year-old again," says Irwin. "Volunteering is something you do for yourself, I think, as well as for the community."

Faculty, staff and students of the College of Liberal Arts agree. Last fall, the college launched an effort with Rochester City School District's School 36 to provide after-school activities that encourage above-average students to learn outside the regular classroom.

"It's hard to say who benefits more," says Dean Andrew Moore, "the School 36 students or the RIT volunteers.

Sigma Alpha Mu brothers Ray Winter, left, and Paul Chevrette sat in a box on top of a 40-foot-pole for the fraternity’s seventh annual “pole sit” fundraiser for the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

"As a suburban campus," he continues, "we tend to be rather insulated. Programs like this help us understand the community, and also allow people to learn about RIT."

RIT staff and faculty also support the community through gifts of time and resources. University employees have generously supported the United Way campaign; in 2001, RIT tallied a record high of $269,188 and, for the seventh year, earned an Award of Excellence from the United Way of Greater Rochester. With the help of many from the RIT community, the university hosts track and field events for Monroe County Special Olympics each summer. Faculty, staff and students roll up their sleeves for Red Cross blood drives four times a year.

One of the oldest and warmest community connections is with the Arc of Monroe County. In the late 1970s, RIT became an employer of Arc of Monroe clients - people with developmental disabilities - through a job-placement program.

"It was highly successful," recalls James Papero, wellness and recreation coordinator. "Then we got the idea for a summer enrichment program."

Each June, 30 Arc of Monroe clients come to RIT for a week of classes in everything from yoga to photography to computers. Since the program began in 1991, more than 100 faculty, staff and students have volunteered. The special students stay in the dorms and graduate in caps and gowns.

"It's a wonderful experience for people who would never have a chance to be on a college campus," says James Mroczek, president of Arc of Monroe. "RIT was our employer of the year long before it was fashionable to work with people with disabilities.

"There's no other college that has been so responsive, so involved. I could write a book about all the things RIT has done for us."

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