Over 200 University of Massachusetts students gathered at the Haigis Mall Saturday morning before heading into Amherst “to help out their community,” as Student Government Association President Akshay Kapoor puts it.
Kapoor led the “UMass UMake A Difference,” a day-long program brought on by the SGA that allowed UMass students assist the Amherst community.
“It is my hopes that our neighbors who live in that area realize that this is what UMass students do. We care and take care of our community,” Kapoor said.
Those “students who might misbehave is not what encompasses the average UMass student, and it is time that this mislabel is erased,” he said.
Students were sent out to 12 volunteer sites in Amherst, including the police department, downtown Amherst and Puffer’s Pond, from around 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
On a bright but cool morning, few people were at Puffer’s Pond besides the group of about 20 students under the direction of Dave Ziomek, director of conservation and planning for Amherst.
Original plans called for the group to help remove a wooden wall at the ledge of the pond to help make the landscape more natural. But a bees’ nest that flew out of the structure upon its demolition quickly derailed that plan.
Instead, the students walked around the perimeter of the pond, picking up debris left behind by visitors, including a broken chair and pieces of a shattered fence. Students also piled up brush that had been knocked down during the October snowstorm last year.
Senior Erodita Suarez, a member of Sigma Iota Alpha, who came along with three sorority sisters. Suarez said she would like the efforts to show the town that UMass students are “not here to party.”
Cleaning up Puffer’s Pond called back to mid-April, when approximately 1,000 UMass community members partied on the pond’s shore. The party left behind 40 bags of trash, reports said.
Senior Kelsey Stokes said the spring incident did not represent UMass.
“We can give back. UMass can be part of the community,” she said.
Ziomek, a UMass alumna, was ecstatic about the turnout.
Ziomek emphasized the “power of groups,” noting that this would have taken the workers at the conservation department at least a full day to accomplish on their own.
Denise Guideman was also relieved to have some extra hands.
Since the 250th anniversary of Amherst in 2009, Guideman and Dolly Jolly have been organizing the planting of daffodils throughout the town that will bloom in May.
Using funds through grants and donations, the duo, their husbands and occasionally a team of landscapers have planted about 60,000 bulbs in town.
On Saturday, volunteers planted about 2,400 more.
Freshman Sean O’Connor was one of the volunteers helping to plant the bulbs across the street from the Jones Library. He learned about the volunteer day through a poster on campus.
“I just wanted to help out and do service,” he said.
While he found it difficult to get up in time to be at Haigis Mall at 10 a.m., he thought the overall experience would be worth it.
“In May, I am going to come here and be like ‘I did that,’” O’Connor said.
Amherst Town Manager John Musante said that while the relationship between the town and the University is strong, events like “UMass UMake a Difference” make the relationship stronger.
“Events like this make more visible how talented and committed the University and students are to the extent that students are able to interact more and engage more with the people who live in the town, and get to know each other better,” said Musante, UMass alumna.
Musante worked closely with Lisa Queenin, director of community and regional legislative relations, to brainstorm a list of projects for students.
The goal was to have between 100 and 150 students participate in the event. They beat those figures as 168 students pre-registered, with an additional 50 showing up on Saturday.
Kapoor and Queenin had to find more projects, like street clean up, as a result.
“Many of the sites were filled up and we decided to use all the extra hands that had come to join us in going around the Amherst area and conducting neighborhood cleanups,” Kapoor said. “A group of students were assigned to walk up and down Fearing Street and along North Pleasant Street to clean up all the trash in that vicinity.”
During the project, Kapoor visited each of the sites to check in on the workers, an experience he “enjoyed.”
“It was not uncommon for residents of Amherst to stop by the sites and give their thanks to the volunteers,” he said.
The event was a bit of a pet project for Kapoor, who used a community service day as part of his platform when running for SGA office. He has been working with officials such as Queenin, Musante and Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy to plan the event since July.
“I wanted to provide new avenues for students to get involved with things that may interest them; but the channels for getting involved with that were difficult or nonexistent. This was the case for volunteerism on campus,” Kapoor said.
He – along with Ziomek and Guideman – hope that the event will become an annual event and expand with time.
“To see over a hundred students give up their Saturday morning to help out their community is something that we should all take pride in,” he said.
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