Planting Roses, Painting Schools

January 31, 2010
All hands on deck: Alumni across the country tackled a range of service projects, including cleaning Durham’s Walltown neighborhood

All hands on deck: Alumni across the country tackled a range of service projects, including cleaning Durham’s Walltown neighborhood. Jared Lazarus

In Philadelphia, Duke alumni cleaned, painted, and decorated Tanner Duckrey Elementary School. In Wilmington, North Carolina, volunteers pruned trees and bushes and planted roses, juniper, and holly on the grounds of a homeless shelter. In Cincinnati, alumni painted an outdoor mural, cleaned up a neglected park, and planted spring bulbs.

At twenty cities across the country, more than 500 Duke alumni and their friends and family members participated in the inaugural Duke Alums Engage Week, a service program that connects Duke alumni with local community partners. The majority of the projects took place October 30 to November 8, although several were held earlier to accommodate the schedules of local communities and agencies.

Sorting clothing donations for foster children in Seattle

Sorting clothing donations for foster children in Seattle. Anne Lawler ’75

Duke Alums Engage Week is the culmination of more than a year of planning by the Duke Alumni Association's (DAA) Civic Engagement Committee. Inspired by the success of DukeEngage, a program that offers undergraduates intensive civic-engagement experiences in the U.S. and abroad, and building on Duke's commitment to service to society, Duke Alums Engage provides opportunities for meaningful service work while strengthening connections between alumni and their alma mater.

A series of pilot projects began in 2008 in Atlanta; Kansas City, Missouri; the Detroit-Ann Arbor area; San Francisco; and Winston-Salem (see Duke Magazine, January-February 2009). DAA staff members worked closely with alumni volunteers, who were responsible for identifying community partners with new or existing projects that could be undertaken in a single day.

An educational enrichment program in Detroit

An educational enrichment program in Detroit. Chelsea Grimmer

Roseann Viscomi Hassey '83 coordinated the Cincinnati project. Like most of the volunteer leaders, she contacted a number of agencies to determine the best fit between the goals of Duke Alums Engage and the local community. "We wanted to work with a small neighborhood agency because we felt that it would provide the most hands-on work," she says. "And it would be the most meaningful because we'd be working alongside people from that neighborhood."

Even though the morning of the Cincinnati event dawned cold and rainy, Hassey and her two teenage daughters, along with about a dozen other volunteers, spent the day immersed in the work—and in sharing life stories and common connections. "I got to know a young alumna who had just returned from traveling throughout Asia, an alumnus from Puerto Rico who worked for GE who had an interesting perspective on global business, and an older alumna whose children had left the nest," says Hassey. "We also got to know the community leaders and students who attend the neighborhood schools, who were there helping out as well."

In other cities, volunteer coordinators used their existing interests and contacts to design Duke Alums Engage projects. Richard Nasca HS '70, an orthopaedic surgeon in Wilmington, North Carolina, is a longtime volunteer at the Good Shepherd Center, which provides food, shelter, and transitional services for the city's poor and homeless. Through his affiliation with the Master Gardener Program, he and other master gardeners had landscaped the center's new facility when it was built several years ago. (Master gardeners are trained volunteers throughout the U.S. and Canada who work with local cooperative-extension agencies to educate the public on gardening and horticultural issues.) On the day of the Duke Alums Engage event, local Duke alumni and master gardeners met at the center to further beautify the grounds, from weeding existing beds to planting new flora.

"It was a lot of work, but everyone just rolled up their sleeves and got the job done," says Nasca. "We all bonded very quickly; there was a lot of laughter. It was a positive experience for everyone who was there."

A fall fitness fair at Ludlow-Taylor Elementary School in Washington

A fall fitness fair at Ludlow-Taylor Elementary School in Washington. Mike Showalter

Chris O'Neill '95, assistant director of the DAA's regional programs, says that Duke Alums Engage provides an additional way for alumni of all ages to stay connected to Duke. "Service has always been a part of the Duke experience for students and alumni. The idea of Duke Alums Engage is to emulate the best attributes of those experiences to allow alumni to connect back to Duke, and with one another, through service and reflection."

In some cities, volunteers took time after the event to discuss the benefits and challenges of conducting community-service work and ways to connect such work to other areas of their lives. The conversations were facilitated by students from Duke's LEAPS (Learning through Experience, Action, Partnership, and Service) program, a student-run organization of trained facilitators who work with faculty members to design and help run reflection sessions for service-learning courses.

Joan Lim '07 coordinated the Duke Club of Philadelphia's service project, which was a component of the annual city-wide Philadelphia Cares Day events. Lim, who was active in community service throughout her time at Duke, says the Duke Alums Engage event attracted alumni who have not been particularly involved in other club programming.

"About half of the people who came out I had never seen before," she says. "For some people, meeting for a happy-hour event or basketball-viewing party is how they stay connected. For others, the idea of community service is a more meaningful draw."

Cincinnati's Hassey echoes Lim's observation. "Duke Alums Engage has tremendous potential to build people's post-Duke experiences around shared values," she says. "When you connect at the values level, you forge strong friendships that last. Even though we came from different eras and backgrounds, by the end of the day we were hugging each other and exchanging e-mail addresses. There's something very powerful about working with other people who have come together for the common good."

The next Duke Alums Engage Week will take place in the spring of 2011. In the meantime, program participants in host cities are already making plans for building on the momentum they've created with fellow Duke alumni, community partners, and the DAA.