Counting the impact

Inaugural College of LAS Days of Service leads to connection
Volunteers in Champaign. (Photo by Heather Gillett.)

Most days are easy to quantify. Eight-hour workday. Twenty-minute commute. Three meals. 10,000 steps.

However, during the inaugural College of LAS Days of Service, the impact is tougher to tally.

Of course, it’s easy to count the more than 50 volunteers providing more than 100 hours of service in three cities. And at the Greater Chicago Food Depository, 7,410 pounds of apples were separated into individual bags for families, then in Champaign, 900 meals were packed for individuals. While in San Antonio, alumni and their families provided a combined 16 hours of community service for a local event at Olmos Basin Park.

However, numbers really cannot tell the full story, because community service tends to have a ripple effect. A single idea put into motion creates an impact reaching beyond the initial point of contact, even for the volunteers.

When Meg Edwards, director of corporate and foundation relations for College of LAS Office of Advancement, reached out to alumna Susan Morisato (BS, ‘75; MS, ’77, mathematics) to share her idea of inviting alumni to volunteer in their hometowns, Morisato agreed to help without hesitation. After all, Morisato has seen the far-reaching impact of service, and she maintains strong bonds with her alma mater.

Her family includes six Illinois alumni, so when it came time to select where she would study for her undergraduate degree, U of I was an easy decision. Deciding what she would study was a bit more challenging. After considering a variety of paths, Morisato chose actuarial science in the Department of Mathematics just as the major was launching.

“I was interested in taking the math courses for fun, which I’m guessing would puzzle some people, and it turned out to be a phenomenal career choice for myself,” she said. “I really loved the idea of using mathematics within the business world.”

Volunteers in Chicago
College of LAS alumni helped pack 7,410 pounds of apples at the Greater Food Depository in Chicago on Saturday, Sept. 30, 2023. (Photo provided.)

While on campus, Morisato was a member of the women’s bowling team, which allowed her to travel around the Midwest and visit the Big 10 schools to compete.

“I loved campus, and there was a lot of Illini pride knowing that I was getting a great education,” she said. Morisato now lives in Chicago, and since graduation she has served as a founding member of the Department of Mathematics Development Advisory Board and is a current member of the College of LAS Alumni Council.

However, it was during the last 15 years of her career while working for United Health Group, a partner of AARP, when Morisato saw the ripple effect community service can create.

“AARP, as we know, is one of the largest senior oriented member organizations,” she said. “When we were developing the contract between (United Health Group and AARP), one of the things AARP pushed for was this notion of corporate social responsibility. I think 30 years ago it was more lip service than real for many organizations, but United Health Group really embraced that concept.”

Volunteers in Champaign-Urbana
College of LAS alumni, faculty, staff, students, and administration came together to pack 900 meals at the University YMCA during 2023 U of I Homecoming weekend on Friday, Oct. 20, 2023. The group worked with the student organization Illini Fighting Hunger for the Wesley Food Pantry. (Photo by Heather Gillett.)

Through her professional role, she took advantage of the opportunities to volunteer throughout her community. From food packs to toy builds, Morisato was able to see first-hand the benefits of service.

“It turns out there were studies done around volunteering,” she explained. “What researchers found, at first anecdotally, was that volunteers felt better mentally and physically after providing service. When studies were eventually complete, volunteering absolutely does have three huge benefits for individuals beyond the organizations they are helping. 

“Service can provide a sense of purpose when you are doing this work within your community,” Morisato added. “It also develops new skills. And it’s just a way to nurture relationships. You meet new people; you reinforce existing relationships.”

And Morisato is correct, according to the National Institutes of Health, which advocates volunteering
as part of a healthy lifestyle. Mental and physical health, life satisfaction, and social well-being were significantly and positively correlated with volunteerism, their study found.

Volunteers in San Antonio
College of LAS alumni and their families volunteered at Olmos Basin Park in San Antonio, Texas, on Saturday, Oct. 28, 2023. Volunteers worked a booth for the city’s parks department and helped festival attendees create Gyotaku prints. (Photo provided.)

“Volunteering is a way for individuals to get physically and mentally active, to feel good about what they are doing,” Morisato added. “When (Edwards) said she was thinking about creating Days of Service, I did not hesitate, because I could see all of the benefits. These can be seen happening within the alumni community as well. This is a way to stretch and strengthen our network of alumni.”

In Champaign, Illinois junior Leah Ju, a bioengineering student, is the president of Illini Fighting Hunger, which provides opportunities for volunteers to give back on campus.

“Meal pack is the core of what Illini Fighting Hunger does,” Ju explained.

“The big issue right now is there are willing volunteers but not enough places for them to give that energy. So, Illini Fighting Hunger is trying to close that gap between people who are willing to volunteer and the ingredients that are ready to be packed to feed those in need.”

On campus during Homecoming Week 2023, College of LAS leadership joined with alumni, students, faculty, and staff to pack meals for a Day of Service with Illini Fighting Hunger for the Wesley Food Pantry on Green Street.

In Chicago, LAS alumna Mallery Weber (BS, ’06, psychology) spent her LAS Day of Service inspecting apples.

“I thought this was a great way to combine my passion for volunteering with a great cause and spend some time meeting other LAS alumni,” Weber said. “This was a very memorable experience since I was able to meet other alumni who live in the area. I even exchanged numbers with a new volunteer friend, and we plan to volunteer here together in the future.”

The College of LAS Days of Service was created to engage LAS alumni across the U.S. in their hometowns, Edwards explained.

“We wanted to create opportunities for alumni to get to know one another in their geographic area and provide an opportunity to simultaneously contribute locally,” Edwards said. “The power of LAS alumni is impressive, and we look forward to expanding this program and growing our impact.”

Future LAS Days of Service events will be announced later this year.

Editor's note: This story originally appeared in the Spring 2024 issue of The Quadrangle.

News Source

Kayleigh Rahn