KU’s Big Event getting bigger: Thousands turn out to volunteer for one-day, citywide effort

Kansas University sophomore Corey Boucher, St. Louis, Mo., right, tosses a bag of mulch to John Curran, Olathe, at the Lawrence High School football stadium during the third annual Big Event volunteer service day on Saturday. Nearly 3,000 KU students and staff members spread out across Lawrence performing volunteer duties such as mulching, weeding and planting flowers.

The north side of Lawrence High School’s stadium Saturday morning was a case in point for how volunteerism can snowball.

On the top level of the landscaped terrace, Kansas University student Yliana Ruiz scooped razor-sharp pampas grass clippings into bags with gloved hands.

To show her children the value of giving back, Ruiz brought them along — all four of them — and had them clipping and scooping alongside her instead of sitting at home watching TV.

Another terrace down, Lawrence High School parent Jill Fincher pruned unruly rose bushes into shape for spring. She was one of multiple LHS representatives working alongside KU students.

“We felt like if they were doing it, we needed to, too, because it’s our campus,” Fincher said. “It takes so much less time the more hands you get.”

The stadium scene was just one of hundreds of similar scenarios playing out across town as part of KU’s third annual Big Event. The effort mobilizes students, faculty and staff to perform community service projects at public locations and private residences on a single, designated day.

Turning out in huge numbers all at once is a very visible way for KU to say “thank you” to the community, event co-founder Kris Velasco, a Wamego senior, said.

“It makes a more noticeable impact,” he said.

The Big Event is, in fact, big — and getting bigger.

The first year saw fewer than 500 volunteers working at fewer than 80 sites, Big Event executive director Lauren Reinhart, a Kansas City, Mo., senior said. Last year saw about 2,000 volunteers at about 180 sites.

On Saturday, about 3,000 volunteers worked at about 400 sites.

Coordinating an event that big involves what Velasco described as “lots of moving parts,” things like matching the number of volunteers with the number of sites and ensuring everyone has the proper equipment.

Volunteers funneled through a sign-in table outside KU’s Ambler Student Recreation Fitness Center before fanning out to their assigned sites Saturday morning. Reinhart was taking questions left and right: Is the paint on its way with someone? Did that team get all the rakes they need? What if more than the assigned volunteers show up to the same site?

“It’s a lot of planning,” Reinhart said. “When it comes to the day of, you have to be ready to think on your feet.”

Ruiz, a Pasadena, Calif., senior, was one of several Multicultural Scholars Program students helping at LHS. It was the biggest job site, with more than 80 volunteers.

Ruiz said she and other Multicultural Scholars in need of financial assistance benefit from scholarships donated by people that might be unnamed or that they might never meet.

“It’s important to give back to the community,” Ruiz said. “I think that we receive a lot from the community. And it’s important to show your kids, and the only way to show them is by example.”

A few miles away at Lawrence Hidden Valley Camp, another batch of KU volunteers was planting native shrubs and evergreen saplings along 15th Street, where previous trees had to be cleared for Westar Energy’s installation of a new transmission line.

“They’ll make a huge difference,” camp manager Durand Reiber said, noting that Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts were expected to help later Saturday and on Sunday but that many of them were too small for hard work like digging holes.

KJHK program director Maranda Jones, a Topeka junior, said more than a dozen volunteers from the radio station were helping at Hidden Valley. She signed up this year, KJHK’s first at the Big Event, hoping it would be a good way for station representatives to get outside and interact beyond their own organization.

KJHK station manager Kaitlin Brennan, a Wichita senior, said they hope to make their participation an annual event.

“We DJ and provide sound to the Lawrence community, but we decided to go out and actually be there instead of having just our voices heard,” she said, adding that she liked the idea of so many students setting aside the same day to volunteer. “You are all working for a bigger purpose together.”