University of New England students clean up trash at Clifford Park in Biddeford on Saturday as part of the University of New England’s first Day of Service.

University of New England students clean up trash at Clifford Park in Biddeford on Saturday as part of the University of New England’s first Day of Service.

BIDDEFORD — At the University of New England Campus Center on Saturday, hundreds of students meandered the halls and gymnasium preparing to participate in the university’s first Day of Service.

More than 350 members of the college community showed up to help at 25 local nonprofits as part of the event, which the university hopes to make an annual occurrence.

“By setting aside a special day when the UNE community goes out en masse into the community, we make a statement,” said UNE President Danielle Ripich in a speech to the volunteers. “We show that we care, and hopefully we spur others in the community to volunteer as well.”

Volunteer groups dispersed to a variety of locations around Saco, Biddeford, Kennebunk and Portland to perform tasks such as spring cleanup of parks, trails and beaches, painting, woodworking, boat-building, winterizing homes, installing smoke alarms and interacting with the elderly.

Organizations providing volunteer sites included Habitat for Humanity of York County, the American Red Cross, Seeds of Hope Neighborhood Center, Bon Appetit Meals Program, Maine Veterans’ Homes, Community Action Head Start, Saco Parks and Recreation, Heart of Biddeford, the North York County YMCA and many others.

Theo Dunfey, director of community programs for UNE’s Office of Citizenship and Civic Engagement, said the college had been trying to implement a Day of Service for years. But it didn’t take off until Sarah Hoover, a senior in applied social and cultural studies minoring in Latin American studies, took on a leadership role in organizing the event.

“Sarah was looking for ideas regarding her senior internship, so I suggested to her she might want to intern at the United Way of York County, learn as much as she can from them and then come back to the campus and use that newfound knowledge of organizations in the community and initiate the launch of the first Day of Service,” said Dunfey.

Dunfey said UNE’s main campus often seems separate from the downtown area of Biddeford. The Day of Service holds great importance for community connection, and provides an opportunity to students who weren’t quite sure how to go about it beforehand, she said.

“We do have a lot of students who participate in the community regularly, and for them, this is a chance to show their peers that this is something they do that they are proud of,” Dunfey said. “It’s a great way to get more people into the community – and even better, we’re doing it with an impact.”

Hoover, who has been working with her professors and student colleagues all semester on the UNE Day of Service, said she took on the challenge of spearheading the event because it’s important to connect the UNE community to the rest of York County.

“For some of us, UNE is where we spend four years of our lives, so it’s important to show that we, as students, are willing to serve them as a community,” she said. “I really wanted to strengthen this connection.”

Work on organizing the Day of Service started full force in January after the idea was presented to Hoover by Dunfey.

“She’s been a really great role model for me, and she had the time to help me get it off the ground,” Hoover said. “We’ve had an overwhelmingly positive response as well, which is really amazing. Local organizations have donated to us, as well as the school.

“Everyone is willing to help. It’s a really good feeling knowing there is this whole community behind me that are willing to give back.”

Sam McReynolds, professor and chair of the Society of Culture and Language, said students are required to take a seminar on citizenship and perform 15 hours of community service. To accommodate this need, it was decided to finally pursue the UNE Day of Service, both as a way to fulfill this requirement and get involved in the community.

“Our students are privileged. They make up 28 percent of the population of the university undergraduates, and are lucky enough to have an education – and the way they got here wasn’t on their own,” said McReynolds. “We strongly believe and advocate that they need to give back to others.”

Many UNE students are very skilled in a variety of trades, and they can use that in their communities, McReynolds said.

“You learn a lot about yourself when giving, and in addition, it’s fun,” he said. “You get to meet new people. It’s a real way to bridge people in a community that may not otherwise interact. We’re hoping to start a legacy and expand on it each year.”

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