After a two-year break, George Fox University's Serve Day, a day when the entire school shuts down and dedicates time to helping others, returned last week.
On the morning of Sept. 14, several thousand students and faculty members squeezed into vehicles or crowded the sidewalks on their way to their assigned serve sites. There were more than 100 sites, including retirement facilities, schools, animal shelters, churches and various nonprofits — some a mere minute walk from the university, others almost an hour's drive to Portland.
For the next five to six hours, students and GFU staff cleaned, organized, weeded, painted or fulfilled whatever other tasks the organizations requested. Except for extenuating circumstances, all university staff and on-campus students are required to participate, with off-campus students strongly encouraged.
Since the conception of the idea in 1999 by then-university president David Brandt, Serve Day has been an annual tradition in which many staff and students take pride.
"It's the reason I came to Fox," sophomore Tyler Mathison said. "It cares about more than the mass production of degrees. (Serve Day) is a reminder to help people and take the time out of your busy semester to serve God and people as well."
Due to the pandemic, Serve Day was put on hold for two years. Sept. 14 marked the first Serve Day since, as well as the first Serve Day most current GFU students had ever experienced, except for seniors who participated as freshmen.
To Dixie Downey, a plant services employee, this made the day even more significant.
"It's even more important this year to give businesses a boost and help them get back on their feet," said Downey, who has worked at GFU for 14 years. "It's a really exciting opportunity to make a positive difference for businesses and charity, especially after the ravages of the pandemic."
A Serve Day team leader every year since she began her employment at GFU, Downey asked, as usual, for a random serve site.
"I love being wherever in the community," Downey said. "I enjoy having something new to do each year and meeting different groups and business leaders."
This year, she and her five group members were assigned to Lucky Finds, a local thrift store that supports charities in the community. Downey and her team helped sort through and organize merchandise that over time had cluttered the small building.
"We help with shelters, and when people come in here, they sometimes want something but can't find it (among the mess)," said Denise Buckles, a volunteer at Lucky Finds, adding that the mess is also a safety hazard. "The more we sell, the more we can help the two programs we support, (the Downtown Drop-in Center and Chehalem House)."
"I don't like that room over there," Buckles said, pointing to a particularly crowded corner of the store. "It means a lot to have someone to make it happen. We don't have enough volunteers to keep it up. I don't like chaos, so it's really big for me (that people are willing to help)."
Meeting a need that otherwise wouldn't be met is one of the best parts of Serve Day, Downey said. Almost every year when she and her team walk into a serve site, "you can tell that business owners are discouraged by how much needs to be done," she said.
Fortunately, the students often finish the tasks early.
"It's impressive how much we get done in a day," Downey said.
Junior Redman-Brown, who helped change lightbulbs at Lucky Finds, described Serve Day as an opportunity for students to give back to a community that supports them.
"As students, we don't have a lot of money, but we have time," he said.
Serve Day is also a chance to interact with different kinds of people.
"Most of the places we're serving, not a single person there is someone who we would normally rub shoulders with," said Jenny Getsinger, GFU's director of student accounts.
This year, Getsinger, who has participated in every single Serve Day, took her team to Avamere, a local retirement facility, to socialize with residents and clean their wheelchairs.
"In the memory care, we sit and ask their names because we recognize how a lot of people don't have anyone to visit them," Getsinger said. "This is their one chance this year to get their chair cleaned and interact with GFU students."
Serve Day also serves as a wake-up call for GFU students, Getsinger said.
"Some people are wired to serve and are good at seeing needs, but a majority of people are not of that mind," she said. "(Serve Day) helps them become more aware of needs around them."
Additionally, the day of service helps the facility's staff members immensely, who are in short supply and spread thin.
"They don't have a lot of people to clean wheelchairs," freshman Amelia Layton said. "Students are tending to things the staff don't get to, so they can focus on people (residents), not menial tasks. It takes the load off them for a few weeks."
She added, "Every time they (the staff) see you, they thank you 12 times."
Another overburdened entity is the Newberg school district.
GFU career and academic planning coaches Sherri Moore and Whitney Shoun and assistant professor of management Wendy Flint choose to volunteer at a local school on Serve Day every year because of this. This year, the trio volunteered at Ewing Young Elementary School, where they sorted books by grade level and fulfilled other small but time-consuming duties for teachers.
"We do the little tasks so they can focus on big tasks and don't have to spend time doing them after hours or at home on the weekends," said Moore, who described teachers as severely overworked.
"George Fox is one of the largest employers in Newberg … and part of being a good company is doing things for your community," Shoun added.
Sophomore Hanna Hevia, who spent most of her day in the copier room printing reading materials, had a more personal take.
"Don't take Serve Day for granted," Hevia said. "It could be an experience you may not forget."
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