Saturdays are for the volunteers

Monday through Friday, Badgers often find themselves swamped with research papers, quizzes and exams. One day out of the week, however, is a guaranteed peak — Saturday. Acting as a bright spot, Saturday provides many sleep-deprived college kids 24 hours of solace.

But, amidst COVID-19, what does one do on arguably the best day of the week? Greek InterVarsity Volunteer Chair Cameron Rivera has some thoughts.

“Here’s how I see it Saturday a lot of people save their work for Sunday,” Rivera said. “They spend all day, I don’t know, maybe watching college football, maybe doing a little work, maybe messing around, playing some video games.”

Greek InterVarsity is a national ministry for fraternity and sorority students, where faith and Greek life intersect. Its mission is to transform the lives of its members, renew their Greek systems and to forge leaders who will go on to change the world for the sake of their Christian beliefs.

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Oct. 24, some University of Wisconsin students deviated from Rivera’s vision of Saturday to give back to their community. Greek life members, including many involved with Greek IV, donated their time to the Community Action Coalition for South Central Wisconsin’s Koats for Kids drive.

Stemming from President Lyndon B. Johnson’s war on poverty initiatives, CACSCW has been around since the 1960s. Dane County continually benefits from CACSCW’s mission of transforming communities, with the independent nonprofit’s cornerstone remaining poverty elimination. Their other areas of focus include housing security, life skills and food security.

Koats for Kids started in 1986, CACSCW Executive Director Amber Duddy said. Since that time, 323,761 coats have been collected, cleaned and distributed through KFK to people both in and around the Madison area. Building upon that legacy, this year’s 35th annual coat drive proved successful — even in the midst of a global pandemic.

To understand the magnitude of KFK, one must first have an understanding of CACSCW’s capacity to enact change in their community.

“We see ourselves as helping people navigate the community in order to achieve their best possible selves,” Duddy said.

Even amongst CACSCW’s broad scope of goals and programs in Dane, Jefferson and Waukesha counties, Duddy believes KFK maintains a special place in many hearts.

“This is probably one of our most public programs that we do. You know, we have an entire week where we’re on the news,” Duddy said. “But, for me, it is just so heartwarming, especially as the weather is starting to change, to see how much the event means to both the folks that we serve, but also the folks that are donating coats every year.”

Coats during COVID 

Though this year looked a bit different, KFK’s impact was just as great. Over the course of eight days, those in need could stop by 1856 Wright Street in Madison for not only coats, but an assortment of winter gear, including knitted hats and gloves donated by the Madison Knitters Guild

The 7,000-square-foot warehouse, generously provided by McAllen Properties, allowed the event to be COVID-19-conscious. Event organizers provided masks to those without one. Additionally, huge garage doors remained open to provide constant airflow, while roped-off aisles maintained one-way traffic.

Volunteers at the Koats for Kids drive

Beyond Dane County, CACSCW held pop-up events in Lake Mills, Watertown, Fort Jefferson and Fort Atkinson. At the Lake Mills drive, one family was particularly touched by KFK.

“The ability to pick out special items for my family was a luxury. The handmade accessories brought us all so much joy. Knowing that each one was made with love and kindness makes the impact even greater,” a KFK attendee wrote in an email to CACSCW. “My daughter cried when she received her hat and mittens. She’s overjoyed to have something new and special for this winter. Thank you for welcoming all and making this winter, and our hearts, a little warmer.”

Judging from the comments of student volunteers, KFK touched their hearts as well. Three teams of 10 tackled four-hour shifts at the Madison warehouse Friday, Oct. 23 and Saturday, Oct. 24.

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Marissa Zepecki, who volunteered on Saturday, reflected upon what she normally would have been doing.

“Now, I feel like my Saturdays are really boring,” Zepecki said. “I just sit around and do homework.”

Taking the volunteer leap

As a member of Delta Gamma and the leadership team for Greek IV, Zepecki, along with a handful of Greek IV members, jumped at the volunteer opportunity Rivera had coordinated with CACSCW. With a many-hands-make-light-work mentality, Rivera also extended volunteer invitations to his fraternity, Acacia, where members Campbell Sampson and Zack Zubuckus got on board.

Coming from a volunteer-oriented background, Zubuckus saw KFK as a great opportunity to give back to those who weren’t given the same opportunities as him.

“I’m pretty lucky, how I have lived and what I have been able to do,” Zubuckus said. “So, you know, [the coat drive was] an opportunity to give back to people who haven’t been so fortunate.”

Though Zubuckus grew up volunteering, others have a different story.

For Sampson, signing up was much more than just a four-hour chunk out of his weekend. In his eyes, the act was long overdue. 

“As a college student, it seems like a very ‘you versus the world’ mindset, or your biggest priorities are academics and kind of just a couple other things,” Sampson said. “But I feel like not many college students volunteer.”

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As Sampson said, many college students battle the volunteer slump. Plenty have good intentions, but a gap in actual volunteer participation remains. Studies indicate a mere one in four college students devote time to volunteering.

Rivera suggests a lack of volunteering does not necessarily mean a lack of interest. With academic tunnel vision, many students simply do not know where to start.

“I think there are a lot of people that are willing to get involved, even during a pandemic, that just don’t know how to get involved,” Rivera said. “If college kids are helping out, I’m sure a lot more people would be willing to get involved in their community, if they knew how.”

Before KFK, Sampson knew he wanted to help, but did not know when or where to lend a hand until Rivera extended an offer to volunteer at KFK.

Originally, Sampson considered himself in the non-volunteering majority. Now, after his KFK experience, Sampson sees this year as an opportunity to act.

“I always say I will do stuff, yet never act upon it,” Sampson said. “I want to be a different person this year … Rather than me saying ‘I want to volunteer,’ [I want to] switch that to me actually volunteering.”

Sampson said he does not regret switching his mentality.

Looking back on his experience, the four-hour shift flew by. Games of “who would have worn this coat” gave those working a good laugh. A competition to completely empty a massive orange storage unit, packed floor to ceiling, front to back with coats, kept everyone motivated.

“They really helped us, you know, get everything in order, sort out bins and bins of coats,” Duddy stated. “I think there was that one fraternity group [Greek IV and Acacia] that just went back-and-forth from our main office, and they were just having a blast about it.”

A volunteer holds up a Koats for Kids Koat

In two separate cars, Zubuckus and fellow student volunteers formed a caravan and made consecutive five-minute trips to and from the warehouse and storage unit. Zubuckus can attest the pick up, load up and drop off cycle was rewarding, even while wedged between heaps of winter gear.

At first, he underestimated the number of coats he would be handling as well as the size of KFK’s operation.

“I figured it would be kind of like a small operation,” Zubuckus said. “The amount of stuff that we were handling was just kind of impressive.”

By the end of the night, the team’s dream became reality — the storage unit was bare.

A successful endeavor

In an email to The Badger Herald, CACSCW Administrative Coordinator Oliver Soler estimates the group helped unload 6,000 coats. While gutting the storage unit was a competitive game in nature, CACSCW greatly appreciated the student volunteers’ effort.

“Honestly, without our student volunteers, we would have been scrambling, because we really only had six or eight staff across CACSCW that could even walk away from their other duties to report,” Duddy said.

Zepecki, guided by her faith to serve those in need, said she was glad to be of service. Overall, she found the experience both entertaining and humbling, a pleasant change of pace from her normal Saturday routine.

Going forward, Zepecki hopes other college students may rethink their view of Greek life and service.

“I think when people think of Greek life, in general, they think of people — I mean, just looking at stereotypes — people that are selfish. They don’t look at the service side of things and all that we try to do for the community,” Zepecki said. “And I just think it’s such an awesome opportunity that, whether it’s through your sorority or fraternity, or through Greek IV, we have these opportunities that you can serve and care for others in Madison and the community, and be a part of something that’s bigger than yourself.”

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Regardless of one’s view on faith or Greek life, time is a valuable gift. Prioritizing volunteering takes a conscious effort. The potential impacts made, however, can be oh-so rewarding.

For those who gave a small portion of their homework-finishing, football-watching Saturday to KFK, Rivera believes all it took was a starting point.

“All you gotta do is give people the opportunity, and then they’ll realize how much fun they’re having, and how much impact they can have,” Rivera said. “But, if you don’t give them that opportunity, not many people go out of their way to find that opportunity. If you take a leap of faith, people will follow you.”

And maybe, just maybe, beyond the lows of a work week and the highs of a Saturday, other Badgers can begin appreciating a new form of solace — volunteering.