Samantha B. Bonar

Hundreds of Occidental College students, faculty, alumni, and staff fanned out to more than 20 locations across Los Angeles on Saturday, January 22 to paint classrooms, prepare meals for the homeless, and help cultivate school gardens as part of the College's annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service.


Determined to participate in the national effort to give back to the community in honor of Dr. King's legacy despite the fact that spring semester classes don't begin until January 18, Occidental schedules its day of service one week later, explained Ella Turenne, assistant dean for civic engagement.

"Community service is a hallmark of an Occidental education, and this gives us the opportunity not only to be of service to our community partners but to kick off the semester with a very public reminder of our shared commitment to the larger community of which we are a part," Turenne said.

While many of the Occidental volunteers labored at public schools, churches, and community centers in Eagle Rock, others worked in Glendale, Pasadena, downtown Los Angeles, and as far afield as the Wildlife Waystation in Tujunga and Daniel Freeman Elementary School in Inglewood. In many cases, volunteers returned to the same sites they supported last year.

"It's just so uplifting that you're doing this for the community," said Desiree De Bond Vargas, principal of Eagle Rock's Rockdale Elementary School, where Occidental volunteers were laying the groundwork for a school garden by chopping down trees and weeding. "And the students are so jazzed to get out into the community and help. They're a great group. Having them here giving their time is just priceless to us." The school garden will be an ongoing project for Occidental student volunteers. "It's a long-term commitment," said Occidental assistant history professor Alexandra Puerto, who was helping pull weeds. 

Organizers worked with current community partners, Councilmember Jose Huizar's office, and the Eagle Rock Association to identify groups to work with, Turenne said. "Our goal was to stay local and to work with organizations that we can build a long-term relationship with."

Rafael Gonzalez, chief service officer for the city of Los Angeles, and Occidental President Jonathan Veitch addressed the volunteers in Thorne Hall at 9 a.m. Saturday. After six hours of work, volunteers returned to campus by 5 p.m. for a community dinner and to reflect on the day's events.

"We're beautifying, cleaning, watering, and making the families dinner," said Larkin Grant '12, a kinesiology major from San Francisco who volunteered at Pasadena's Ronald McDonald House, which provides housing for terminally ill children and their families while the children receive treatment at nearby hospitals. 

"I think it's the best way to give back--by lending a hand," said Frances Nova '12, a sociology major from Trenton, N.J. who painted, cleaned, and pulled weeds at Eagle Rock's St. Dominic School. "We're college students--we don't have a lot of money to give. But we can get out and work with our hands." 

"In the classroom we can learn about our communities and what they need, but getting out here and actually doing it is really rewarding. And fun," said Alex Steussy-Williams '11, an ECLS major from New Castle, Ind. who also spent the day working at St. Dominic.

Supported by its Center for Community Based Learning and the campus-wide Civic Engagement Task Force, service learning has been fully integrated into Occidental's curriculum. Last year, almost half of Occidental students participated in service learning or community service, including 37 service-learning courses offered by 14 academic departments. Occidental has been designated a community engagement institution by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and named to the President's Higher Education and Community Service Honor Roll for five consecutive years.

Occidental College MLK Day of Service 2011 from Occidental Film&Media on Vimeo.