Last year, when I was a freshman on Volunteer Day, we were sent to EL ARCA, a center for adults with developmental disabilities. On a sweltering morning, ten of us were handed the job of painting a fence that was about 15 feet across, while the Volunteer Day leaders circled around and nodded in approval. Their approval was dubious since the fence ended up looking like a mess, as was expected. We were inexperienced painters, and our layering techniques were found wanting, leaving globs of paint dripping all over. What should have looked like a shiny, brand new fence instead looked like an amateur recreation of a Janet Sobel painting. And one question nagged us the entire time, “Wait, haven’t we already painted this section before?”
To top it off, a couple of people just sat inside an air-conditioned room, sipping on water. The cost of sponsoring a student on Volunteer Day is $50; not to sound inhumane by reducing people to inanimate objects, but it’s unlikely a sponsor would be glad that their money spent its time cooling off in a lounge.
As a result, the place was left off worse than it would have been had we never entered. The aim of volunteering is to make a beneficial contribution to the community. Shoddily painting a fence isn’t going to make any improvement to the community.
The simple fact is that these beautification projects are performed inefficiently and should therefore form a smaller part of Volunteer Day’s program.
Volunteer Day is meant to be UCLA’s way of giving back to the Los Angeles community, bringing smiles to faces of children, veterans, the elderly and the disabled. At the same time, the organizers would do well to also keep in mind the student volunteers and their quality of work. The program consists of several beautification projects such as painting, laying fence coverings, and landscaping. They require a certain level of experience, something that incoming students might not possess. And requiring them to perform such tasks on a sweltering September morning isn’t the best way to welcome them to UCLA.
One year later, the state of painting in Volunteer Day hasn’t changed and the PR isn’t even trying to hide it. The UCLA Newsroom’s piece contains an image of a freshman dutifully painting a basketball backboard. Away from the focus of the image you can see a couple of students idly watching by, just admiring the paintwork of their fellow Bruin, which speaks for the level of involvement that painting, as a volunteer task, entails.
Such beautification projects are barely interesting to students. It belies the scope of volunteering – interacting with people, learning something new and making an important difference to the people you’ve visited. Instead, these beautification projects are only serving to make a rather lackluster difference to the facade of these sites. They also contain the potential for students to mess up at tasks they have no experience performing, instead of enhancing the beauty of these areas.
To ensure incoming students have a fun, meaningful experience that also provides tangible benefit to the community, the Volunteer Center needs to make a few changes to its current program. A considerable portion of this year’s Volunteer Day program consisted of beautification projects, such as painting and landscaping. The number of beautification projects should be cut down and replaced with an increase in existing interactive activities, like playing with elementary school students or going for a walk with elderly people. The center can achieve this by choosing the sites they decide to visit and the tasks the volunteers are to perform there accordingly. This would also be better at piquing students’ interest in taking up further volunteer opportunities at UCLA.
While beautification projects can be helpful to schools and other centers, sub-par work done by inexperienced, dehydrated volunteers just isn’t all that helpful. Personal interactions with people at the sites would better interest students in future volunteering work, as compared to a tedious task performed at unease on a hot morning. It also removes the possibility for students to just stand by and do nothing.
Taking into account the experience needed for beautification, Shannon Regan Hickman, Director of the UCLA Volunteer Center, said that the center has project leaders and the task captains to supervise the new student volunteers and ensure that the work is being done properly. Not quite how I remember my experience. The project leaders surveyed our work and handed out water bottles, but not much more than that.
And to be fair, there’s not a lot the volunteer leaders can do to prevent students from haphazardly layering paint or making a mistake while adding fence coverings. In the small time interval between arriving at the site and beginning the project, it’s hard to give a thorough enough tutorial of the work that’s to be done.
According to the Volunteer Day website, the day is meant to “give new students a taste of Bruin service and to introduce them to a community partner they may want to learn more about and continue to serve.” Unquestionably, painting a fence or viewing the handiwork of fellow volunteers is not something that would inspire an incoming student to learn more about volunteer opportunities.
Interaction, like talking and spending time with children or elderly people at the volunteer sites, encompasses the values of volunteering better than a beautification project. It shows that volunteers, instead of standing by and watching others, can make meaningful differences to the people they visit and allows them to communicate on a personal level. This would be much more representative of what volunteering at UCLA can look like.
If the volunteers’ level of engagement and the results of their work matter, then beautification projects shouldn’t define the future of Volunteer Day.