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Winter 1999-2000
Vol. 62, No. 2

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Rochester Review--University of Rochester magazine


Wilson Day '99

Service with More Than a Few Smiles

Rochester freshmen learn some important lessons on their first day of school--and they haven't even been in class yet.

by Scott Hauser

9:00 a.m.The buzz of more than a thousand teenagers gathered in a room too small to hold all their energies stops with a noticeable jolt when the basso profundo voice of Paul Burgett, University vice president and dean of students, booms from the podium in the Frederick Douglass Building.

"Class of 2003, faculty members, staff, alumni, and friends. . . . Welcome to the 11th Wilson Day community service project.

"This day is a reminder that privileged people--and we wouldn't be here if we weren't--must extend our hand to our communities to demonstrate our concern for the larger world."

Also See: August 28, 1999: Wilson Day U.S.A.
It's August 27, and the assembled freshmen are about to spend their first organized day as Rochester undergraduates by painting, cleaning, and otherwise helping out at dozens of social service agencies in and around the City of Rochester.

In so doing, Burgett tells them, they are carrying on a tradition that honors the civic spirit of University benefactor and Xerox founder Joseph C. Wilson '31, a philanthropist with deep interests in housing, health, education, social services, and the arts.

Wilson Day coordinator Matt Moffa '01, a religion and physics major, adds his own send-off: "I promise you that none of this college stuff--all of the scholarly pursuits in the arts and sciences and engineering--none of it matters at all unless you can connect it to others around you."

Led in an exuberant "Hip Hip Hooray" by the ever-exuberant Burgett (possibly the only dean in the country who can elicit such a response from today's cool collegians), the Wilson Day volunteers file toward the door, pick up their lunches, and get on the buses to go to work.

10:30 a.m.The 29 students assigned to Hillside Children's Center march toward the gymnasium of this alternative home for troubled youth. The center is one of a number of agencies taking advantage of today's influx of volunteers to plan special events for their clients.

Dressed in splashy tie-dyed T-shirts created by the Hillsiders for the occasion, the students (and fellow worker President Jackson) have been assigned to set up and operate an outdoor carnival for center residents and their families.

True to its name, Hillside is placed among rolling hills on the city's southeast side, a bit of topography that the Rochester students quickly discover.

They've had to carry the equipment for the game booths--basketball, bean-bag toss, numbered spinning wheel, and such--down a hill and over to a field behind the center, where they've been setting them up.

The sweat doesn't put a damper on their mood.

As David Martinelli, from Durham, Connecticut, and Keith Blaquiere, from Falmouth, Massachusetts, tote an arcade-style basketball hoop down a winding path, Martinelli uses a free hand to shoot baskets. "Nice shot," the game's electronic announcer responds as the ball goes in.

"I think we really got lucky with this assignment," Martinelli says as the two set up the game. "We'll get to goof off a bit with the kids."

At the "fishing pond," Mike Fassil, from Newton, Massachusetts, and Mike Klemperer, from Syracuse, test miniature plastic fishing rods. What do they think of starting their Rochester careers doing community service?

"It's great," Fassil says, expressing what is to become the mantra for the day: "You get to meet a lot of people."

Up the hill, President Jackson's brow is dripping as he helps load prizes into the bed of a pickup truck. There'll be at least another load to go.

"To me, today is about community on both an internal and external level," he says during a breather. "This is a way we can create a bond among the freshmen and also a sense of community that will be significant for them.

"And it shows that we're not an ivory tower but a part of a larger community that has had an important relationship with the University over the past 150 years."

11:28 a.m.A swarm of Rochester students is huddled at the Elmwood Avenue gate to Mt. Hope Cemetery. They're scraping rust and renewing the paint on the century-old wrought iron fence that lines the cemetery grounds adjacent to the River Campus.

As she scrapes away paint a few feet from the gate, Erica Baumgart, from Maplewood, New Jersey, admits that she'd rather be spending the day with people in need at a social service agency, something she did in high school.

Chimes in Jesse Weber of Wallkill, New York: "Community service is something I certainly want to do while I'm in college. But fences . . . I'm not sure if that's it."

But, they agree, it's definitely a good bonding experience.

11:50 a.m.The second-floor classroom of St. Monica's School in southwest Rochester is hot, muggy, and bustling. Helping the school get ready for opening day next week, a dozen University students are hauling armloads of books out of a closet and down the hall to another room.

Standing next to a four-foot aquarium, Dale McAdam holds a clear rubber tube, siphoning the water out of the tank and into a bucket on the floor.

The dean for freshmen (and professor of clinical and social psychology) is on his eighth Wilson Day. "It's been an education for me," he says as freshman Dave McColgin of Pittsford, New York, takes the nearly overflowing bucket away. "I've never been assigned to the same place twice, and I've come into contact with several social service agencies I never would have known about."

Watching the line of students snake in and out of the classroom, McAdam notes that Wilson Day gives the new students an opportunity to put team-building and problem-solving exercises--things that are often talked about in classrooms--into practice. And the day of hard work also gives them a sense of place.

"The more they can get involved with the community, the more they make Rochester their home," McAdam says. "The better they know Rochester the town, its communities, and its resources, the happier they are to be here."

Candy Guerrero of Irvington, New Jersey, takes a brief break from hauling books. "I think Wilson Day is great because up to this point I hadn't had a chance to really talk to anybody."

Community service projects foster interaction in a way that other approaches can't, she says. "These are small groups where you have to work together. If you have to move something heavy, you have to talk to people because you need their help."

12:15 p.m.The crew assigned to Sojourner House, a shelter for battered women and their children, is sprawled behind the house having lunch and resting. One group has sorted donations all morning. Another cleaned out a garage filled with furniture and other supplies.

12:30 p.m.The outdoor carnival for the residents of St. John's Home has had to be moved inside because of the threat of rain.

As the residents finish their indoor picnic, a line of University students is ready to help them back to their rooms. Some push wheelchairs; some serve as escorts.

R. J. Johnsen of Washington, D.C., does double duty, pushing one resident in a chair and keeping an eye on two others following behind.

"This is wonderful," Johnsen says as the elevator opens. "I think this is a great way to meet people and help out. I love it." You can hear him still enthusing as the doors close on his flock.

1:32 p.m.The chapel of the Episcopal Church Home erupts in a spontaneous game of balloon hacky-sack as the fourth-floor men of Morgan dorm take down the decorations from another carnival-cum-picnic that had to be moved indoors.

Matt Dennett '00, from Cape Cod, the crew's RA (resident advisor), watches the game as he helps remove tape from a wall.

"A lot of these people didn't even know each others' names this morning," he says. "But now everybody is hanging out and having a lot of fun."

After the cleanup, Dennett donates $5 to the carnival so the first-year students can try to soak him in the "dunking booth." (More accurately a "dripping booth," the game positions the victim under a flow of water that's triggered by a direct hit on the target; it was the only game that stayed outdoors.)

Thoroughly soaked, Dennett leads his freshmen back inside in time for bingo with the home's residents.

2:20 p.m.The looming clouds are threatening a storm down by the lakeside, too, and the organizers of a picnic at Ontario Beach Park have called an early end to activities. Under a shelter, students and residents of the Catholic Family Center are wrapping up their bingo game and saying their good-byes.

Heidi Mergenthaler of Ilion, New York, takes time out from her conversation with three of the residents.

"It's really been a lot of fun being out here," she says. "It was a good project to be assigned to. I hope I'll have time to do more community service. I'd like to find out what I can do."

At the other end of the shelter, Adam Block, from Palo Alto, California, gets a hug from his bingo partner, center resident Jackie Burley. She asks him and his (newfound) mates to pose for a picture. They're happy to oblige.

3:25 p.m.Before the wrap-up party for the Wilson workers can get under way in Genesee Valley Park, across Elmwood from the campus, the threatening clouds have followed through. A downpour has been drenching the landscape.

Most of the students decide to stay under cover in the buses and return to their residence halls.

But more than a hundred have hopped out, willing to brave the persisting drizzle to toss "Rochester Alumni" flying rings to one another, eat ice cream, listen to music, and talk about their day.

Under a park shelter, students with paint-splattered arms and legs mingle with those in damp T-shirts and muddy smudges.

Before long, a flying-ring football challenge is made. Sophomore D'Lions versus the freshmen. Two teams of 10 line up.

Why stand out in the rain to play Frisbee after a hard day of work?

"Why not?" says Andrew Rosenthal of Brooklyn. He was at Heritage Christian Home, helping clear a campground and doing some field work, when the rain moved through.

"We were a lot wetter then."

Thomas Paris of Atlanta was helping run the carnival at Hillside Children's Center. He and classmates from Hoeing 2 and 3 have already talked about going back there later in the semester.

"We had a great time," Paris says. "We all enjoyed it."

With that, the game--and the year--began.

Scott Hauser is the magazine's associate editor.

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