Volunteer website connects students with service opportunities

At 4:15 on a typical Friday afternoon, Peter Zaki, a senior studying bioengineering, won’t be in class, at the gym or even getting ready for the weekend’s festivities. Instead, he’ll be in the HUB along with a dozen or so other Penn State students at their weekly meeting of the Council of LionHearts.

The council is made up of student leaders from Penn State’s most active volunteer and community service organizations, including student chapters of Habitat for Humanity, the United Way, Red Cross and other groups. Each year, the council also helps coordinate such volunteering events as the State Day of Service and Friday Night Lights Out.

“I can’t think of many students outside of the Council of LionHearts who would be willing to give up their Friday afternoons to have a meeting,” said Matt Barone, one of the council’s advisers and the program director for service in the Office of Student Activities. “We often have to go find extra chairs because everyone always shows up. These are really passionate, cream-of-the-crop leaders who are creating a culture of volunteerism at Penn State.”

A time for reflection and sharing, the meeting is a pause at the end of each week for the students to get together and discuss ideas, plan upcoming events and talk about their respective clubs.

For Zaki, who is the president of the Student Red Cross Club and one of its two representatives on the council, the first few weeks of spring are packed with organizing multiple blood drives, a spaghetti dinner and a 5K run.

Though he’s busy securing sponsors, meeting with campus event staff and mapping out a route for the club’s first-ever 5K, he says he’s not too worried about finding volunteers to staff the club’s spring events.

Thanks to Volunteer@PSU, an online sign-up system for community service volunteers, Zaki can post how many volunteers he needs for each shift and let the system handle the rest.

The site — which is used by each of the service organizations that make up the Council of LionHearts as well as other local service agencies — is a portal for Penn State students and community members to identify and sign up for upcoming volunteer opportunities.

On any given day, the calendar might display openings for helping at a local animal shelter with the sisters of Gamma Sigma Sigma, making spaghetti at a Student Red Cross Club fundraising dinner or spending a music-filled evening at a retirement home with the Music Therapy Club.

“It’s clear Penn State students care about and want to be involved with our local communities,” Zaki said. “Not only do we have THON, but one of the top college blood-donation programs in the country. And recently, nearly 700 students volunteered for State Day of Service.”

But it hasn’t always been so easy for students to find and sign up for service opportunities, according to Wendi Keeler, who served as the adviser for the Student Red Cross Club for 14 years and now works in the College of Health and Human Development.

A few years ago, before the Volunteer@PSU site was created, Penn State’s Student Red Cross Club used an online system for scheduling blood donors, but struggled with scheduling volunteers. At the time, it was up to the event sponsor — a club sport team or fraternity, for example — to find volunteers and send the list of names to the Red Cross before each drive. But volunteers didn’t always show up and the Red Cross often had no way to contact them.

Seeing an opportunity to help, Walter Weiss, then a student in the College of Information Sciences and Technology and a regular blood-drive volunteer at the time, built an online scheduling system for the Student Red Cross Club. When he graduated a few years ago, Weiss gifted the system to his alma mater, and since then, it has evolved from a Red Cross tool into Volunteer@PSU, a University-wide hub for promoting, finding and signing up for community service.

Today, event organizers like Zaki use the site to access volunteer contact information, send automated reminder emails, award printable certificates for completed hours of service and even collect T-shirt sizes.

Generally, the majority of volunteer opportunities posted on the site are quickly filled.

“It’s not only so much easier for event organizers to keep track of and coordinate volunteer activities and shifts, but the site also helps students find out about new ways to participate in campus and community life,” Keeler said. “As a first-year student, you might not know what you want to study, but by checking Volunteer@PSU you can get involved with organizations like the American Red Cross and Alpha Phi Omega and learn a lot about yourself and what you’re passionate about.”

For Christian Howard, the president of the Council of LionHearts and a member of Alpha Phi Omega co-ed community service fraternity, enabling people to help others is his passion.

But, he says the biggest obstacle for people who want to volunteer is knowing what they can do to help.

“The Council of LionHearts’ mission is to expand service throughout the University and encourage every Penn State student do some sort of community service while they’re here,” he said. “I’ve found that tons of students are always willing to get involved, so, with the help of Volunteer@PSU, our goal continues to be providing opportunities to get them out into the community.”

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Last Updated July 28, 2017