About 1,000 volunteers from the University of Central Arkansas — students, faculty and staff — will converge Saturday to help Conway residents with projects that range from raking leaves to reorganizing storage sheds.
The work is free through The Big Event Committee, a UCA student organization.
Lesley Graybeal, the group’s staff adviser, said The Big Event, a one-day national program, is a way for UCA to give back. This is the university’s fifth year to participate in the project.
“It’s a completely student-run event, and the purpose of it is for UCA students just to be able to be out in the community and say thank-you to the Conway community that supports UCA year-round,” Graybeal said.
Residents, as well as nonprofit organizations, can request volunteers for a variety of projects, Graybeal said.
“It’s open to anyone. They don’t have to have criteria,” she said.
UCA senior Hayley Harp of Texas, director of The Big Event Committee, said she got involved in the effort in 2015 when she was considering withdrawing from The Honors College.
“I came back for another semester and promised myself whatever popped up on OrgSync, I was going to apply to,” she said, referring to a system that manages registered student organizations.
The Big Event Committee application was the first one she saw. She applied and joined the committee.
“I just fell in love with what it was about and what it did for people,” Harp said.
UCA senior Nikki Van Wilpe of Rogers, a member of The Big Event Committee, started serving in the organization as a freshman.
The first year, she helped Soul Food Cafe Mission in Conway pack boxes and move to a different facility.
“The people who were in charge of it were just so grateful that we were helping. … You could tell we were helping the greater community. We were helping [the Soul Food Cafe Mission] help homeless people,” Van Wilpe said.
She said one of her favorite memories of projects was an elderly woman who needed help raking leaves.
“She was just super excited having people there helping her rake her big yard; it was a huge backyard,” Wilpe said. “It looked great when we were done.”
Committee members work behind the scenes, not on the projects themselves, Graybeal said.
She said 112 projects have been requested this year, almost twice as many as last year. Requests are made in February.
“It’s a big jump from last year; I’m really excited about that,” Graybeal said.
The event will start at 9 a.m. and go until 1 p.m. Committee members, however, will arrive at 5 a.m. at UCA to make sure the tools and supplies are ready to go. Members of The Big Event Committee help volunteers load their vehicles before sending them to job sites.
Although 1,000-plus volunteers signed up, “I would say we’ll have about 800 [volunteers], as long as it’s not raining or freezing cold — although we had more than 700 last year, and it was raining and freezing cold,” Graybeal said, laughing. “The Big Event will go on, rain or shine.”
UCA alumni participate, too, Van Wilpe said.
Graybeal said students in the organization raise money through sponsorships to purchase the supplies, tools and The Big Event T-shirts for volunteers. The money also pays for some students to attend The Big Event leadership conference each February at Texas A&M University in College Station, where the idea originated.
The Big Event Committee raised $11,500 this year, Harp said.
“A lot of people don’t realize how hard it is on this side and how many different things come into it,” Harp said. “I had no idea we needed to fundraise a budget of $9,000 last year and $11,500 this year to get it all done.
“That’s hard work,” she said. “A group of students taking care of that is a big accomplishment.”
Harp said sponsors like Nabholz Construction in Conway make it all possible.
“Nabholz — they are amazing; they have sponsored us every single year,” she said. “Brad Hegeman, specifically — I can shoot him an email, and if he’s not back to me within the hour, he’s back to me the next day, and we’ve got it figured out.”
Hegeman, president of Nabholz Construction, said the company admires the students’ commitment to the community.
“They really hit the ground running, and it’s just so impressive to us to see a group of college kids who really do want to give back to the community,” Hegeman said.
He said the UCA group handles more community projects through The Big Event than universities that have participated much longer.
“It’s just really impressive to see these young students who take a leadership role in the program and look at the community service they’re providing in this area. It’s pretty exciting,” Hegeman said.
Harp said as an out-of-state student, she appreciates the taxpayer money that is being spent on her to get an education and the lifelong friends she has made at UCA.
“It’s hard to justify not giving back when this community has given you everything,” she said.
Harp said that this year, project requests run the gamut from an assisted-living facility to small residences.
“We’ve been doing job checks as a committee, when we go check out the job sites … to make sure [they’re] safe, see how many volunteers are needed,” she said.
Harp and UCA committee members went to the assisted-living facility to assess its needs.
“The older residents were so excited to see young faces there. It was just so sweet to see that,” Harp said. “One of the ladies in charge of everyday affairs filled out the job application; what she wanted us to do was wash windows and clean the bedside tables.”
Also, The Big Event volunteers will help residents in the Alzheimer’s unit clean their closets and wash clothes.
Committee members also went to individual homes to check out project requests.
“One resident at her home, she was like, ‘Would you guys like to sit for a while and then go check out the job site?’ We were like, ‘Yes, of course,’” Harp said — because organizers said The Big Event is just as much or more about community connections as it is chores.
Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or firstname.lastname@example.org.