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Service Saturdays: Building leaders through community engagement

  • Two people sit at a table with crafting materials and a sign that says A Year of Making - Rockets
    Service Saturdays:  Giselle Hajir '23 (left) and Jenna Gruncke '23 volunteer at the Williamsburg Regional Library‚Äôs Year of Making Fair.  Photo by Kristen Popham '20
  • Four people work around a table with paint bottles and other crafting supplies
    Service Saturdays:  Sonia Kinkhabwala '21 (right) works with other students on crafts at the Year of Making Fair.  Photo by Kristen Popham '20
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Williamsburg Regional Library’s door handles were stained with multicolored paint prints. Through the doors, William & Mary students, librarians, and community members were at once crafting and laughing during the year’s inaugural Service Saturday on Sept. 21.

Organized by the Office of Community Engagement, Service Saturdays are monthly opportunities for individual students and organizations to volunteer and support local projects in the Williamsburg community. This past Saturday, approximately 40 student volunteers began their weekend at one of three partnering locations: Habitat for Humanity ReStore, Dream Catchers Therapeutic Riding and the Williamsburg Regional Library.

Alicia Phinny, circulation director for Williamsburg Regional Library (left), and Riley Aiken '20 (Photo by Kristen Popham '20) A wide variety of student groups arrived to participate in the day of community exchange, including William & Mary’s fencing team, multiple fraternities and sororities, as well as individual students. Volunteers spent their shifts engaging in projects — such as organization of holiday merchandise at Habitat for Humanity — or assisting with events, like the Williamsburg Regional Library’s Year of Making Fair. The fair — focused on experiential learning through everything from crafts to 3D printing — was designed to reach out to more of the community.

Associate Director for the Office of Community Engagement Rich Thompson expressed his enthusiasm to witness his first Service Saturday in his new role at the office.

“It’s exciting to be part of this culture of encouraging students to grow inside and outside of the classroom,” he said, “expressing leadership while also developing a stronger connection with their community.”

Students shared similar feelings of eagerness about the day’s events. Sonia Kinkhabwala ’21, sociology major and student leader for Service Saturday’s library event, took a break from tie-dying to remark fondly on the influence of her longtime volunteering in Williamsburg.

“Having a strong community makes so much of a difference,” she said. “I was really homesick my freshman year as an out-of-state student. I really wanted to make a strong community within William & Mary, but also get to know my town.”

It was through her participation with the Office of Community Engagement as a member of AIM4 — a student civic leadership program — that Kinkhabwala began to build her home away from home.

“Service Saturdays gave me a point to start my weekend where I felt like I was already immersed and engaged with other people, forming relationships,” she said. “Now, I’m excited to see the freshmen or underclassmen volunteering. I want to make them feel like this is the beginning of their journey at William & Mary and in Williamsburg.”

Two freshmen carefully crafting air rockets at the library’s event shared their appreciation for the opportunity to launch that very journey for themselves.

“This gives us the opportunity to give back to this community that’s welcomed us,” said Giselle Hajir ’23, prospective neuroscience major.

“And it’s a way to make new friends and meet new people,” added Jenna Gruncke ’23, prospective major in biology.

For Emma Pruss, adult services librarian at the Williamsburg Regional Library, emphasis on community collaboration was the very thing that motivated her to become a librarian in Williamsburg.

“I’ve always wanted to be a librarian since I was 14,” she said. “I was a volunteer in Virginia Beach, which inspired me to see the potential the library has to build the community — not just through reading but through events like this one.  Williamsburg rallies around community support.”

Pruss expressed gratitude for the role of William & Mary students in making the Year of Making Fair possible.

According to William & Mary’s volunteers, the exchange was reciprocal. For students like Gruncke, the opportunity to interact with children at the library’s event supported her desire to work as a future pediatrician. For Kinkhabwala, the library brought her closer to feelings of home.

“The library is very close to my heart because my mom works at a library in my hometown,” she said. “The women at the library remind me of where I came from and how supportive a good community can be.”

Providing students with a community, a sense of their environment and an outlet for leadership is what Service Saturdays were designed to do, Thompson said.

“I hope they’ll take this skill and this passion when they graduate William & Mary to their future communities,” he said. “It’s about giving the students an opportunity to connect deeper — to have them look at themselves and say, ‘How can I personally make a difference, not just now, but down the line?’”