Granola bars, applesauce, cereal packs and other nutritious snacks spilled onto the table. "How should we sort these?" asked Maureen Killeen, assistant director of the University Center for Human Values, one of five volunteers from Princeton University helping at the packing station. "How about we fill on this side, and someone else seals them up?" suggested Kaitlin Lutz, assistant director for finance and administration in the School of Engineering and Applied Science. Soon the group was working like clockwork, filling bin after bin with ready-made bags of healthy foods for children in the Princeton area to take home after school for the weekend.
The team was one part of the hustle and bustle at Mercer Street Friends Food Bank in Ewing, New Jersey, on Jan. 19. Additional volunteers from Princeton University also sorted food donations from area retailers and loaded pallets of frozen meats and fresh vegetables into waiting trucks and vans outside the bay doors.
The morning at the food bank was just one activity during the University's annual Month of Service. Organized by the Pace Center for Civic Engagement and sponsored by the Office of Community and Regional Affairs, Month of Service is an opportunity to recognize the importance of engaging with others and to showcase the many ways Princeton students, staff and faculty serve the community and beyond. For many, it serves as a springboard to engage throughout the year — whether by joining a service organization or project, connecting service and the classroom, volunteering in the community, advocating for change, the list goes on and on.
"Service is a central part of the Princeton experience," said Kimberly de los Santos, the Pace Center's John C. Bogle '51 and Burton G. Malkiel *64 Executive Director. "In service we learn about ourselves, about the community and about how to make positive change in the world around us. Month of Service aims to open this learning experience to the entire University community, so that students, staff and faculty alike can connect with and learn from others in a meaningful way, while also meeting real needs in our local area."
To date, more than 80 staff members and students have signed up to take part in service activities or attend the upcoming Volunteer 101 Workshop with the Pace Center on Feb. 2.
Month of Service also highlights service and civic engagement across the University, including events like a virtual meetup on nonprofit careers with Career Services; a rally against solitary confinement with Pace Center student organization Students for Prison and Education Reform; a social justice training sponsored by the Carl A. Fields Center for Equality and Cultural Understanding, the LGBT Center and the Women*s Center; a winter glove and hat drive organized by the Office of Sustainability; and the annual business attire clothing drive sponsored by the Office of Community and Regional Affairs, the Department of Building Services, the Office of Design and Construction, and the Office of the Provost.
For organizations like Mercer Street Friends, such volunteer support is crucial. Last year, more than 2,600 volunteers helped move 3.1 million pounds of food to support organizations and families across the region.
"We always appreciate donations of money and food, though one of the most valuable gifts that people can give our food bank is their time," Brian Peterson, community resource liaison at Mercer Street Friends. "That is why it is great to have Princeton University volunteers working here now and throughout the year."
Wendy Cotton at Princeton Nursery School, a preschool and child care facility, agreed. "We love volunteers," she said. "They help free up our teachers to do other things and focus their attention on the children and their classrooms. Volunteers are fabulous. They truly mean a lot."
Volunteers at Princeton Nursery School helped clean and put away toys and nap mats, read books with the children, and played outside on the playground as children waited for pick-up at the end of the day giving teachers more time to work with students and prep for the next day's lessons and activities.
For volunteers, having the opportunity to carve out part of their day to give back or help others has been immensely rewarding.
"Today I'm working with Ny'diya here on her geometry and algebra homework," said Melissa DiMeglio, a staff member at the Princeton Neuroscience Institute, while volunteering at Community House. Community House is a student-led program with the Pace Center that focuses on academic and social-emotional support for underrepresented youth in Princeton. "I have been trying to get involved more here on campus little by little," DiMeglio said. "That I can set aside some time to work on just that with Month of Service is great. I've already signed up to come again next week."
Others said that engaging in service fits hand in glove with their role and contributions at Princeton.
"My team approaches the everyday work of our office very much through the lens of sustainability-as-service," said Shana Weber, director of the Office of Sustainability. "Sustainability is at its core about social justice and care for people and planet, so were very excited to participate as a team at Mercer Street Friends. The time flew by and we sorted a lot of food that will help alleviate hunger in local communities."
"Since November, I have felt like big national shifts are happening in ways that are both out of alignment with my personal values and that are impossible for me personally to control," added Caroline Savage, Campus as Lab manager with the Office of Sustainability. "But volunteering today, I could see that we can all still do something that makes a difference. I felt empowered knowing I'm having a direct impact on the 'tomorrow' I want to see — one where fewer kids are hungry and where we build community through compassion. There are plenty of things in this world I can't change, but today I changed the world for somebody."
Upcoming Month of Service opportunities include a volunteering event on Jan. 28 with Loaves and Fishes, a soup kitchen with the Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Assumption in Trenton, as well as Engage and Serve: Intersession, a special week-long collection of service options for undergraduate and graduate students staying on campus during Intersession break Jan. 30 through Feb. 3.
For students looking to engage throughout the rest of the year, the Pace Center will hold its Now What? Spring Service Kickoff at 4:30 p.m. Feb. 14, on the 100 Level of the Frist Campus Center. Students can explore the many student organizations and service projects on campus and meet students advocating for social change and volunteering in the community.