Students spring to service in honor of Martin Luther King Jr.
Nehemiah Bester was just one of 400 Radford University students, faculty and staff who hit the ground running across the New River and Roanoke valleys on Jan. 16.
Spring semester classes didn't start until Jan. 17, but many chose to return to campus early to participate in the university's annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service.
"At Radford, we look at today as a day on, not a day off," said Bester, a media studies major from Richmond.
This is the fourth consecutive year the university has organized the effort that sends hundreds of volunteers across the region to lend a helping hand.
On Monday, those helping hands prepared and served meals, organized clothing and food donations, crafted homemade rugs for sheltered animals, painted walls, cleaned tables and hallways and nurtured the minds of young children.
At the Kroger grocery store in Fairlawn, Bester and his peers collected food items from shoppers for the Bobcat and Micah's backpack programs, as well as for the Women's Resource Center.
"This is what it's all about," Bester said, motioning toward the table where donated goods started piling up.
Tylisia Crews and Cassidy Smith agreed that volunteering helped them connect with the community "in a more intimate way."
"This experience helps us reach others on a different level," said Crews, a senior from Halifax. "As students, we don't often get to interact with the community around us."
Such philanthropic actions reflect the ideals of Martin Luther King Jr., whose influential life was honored worldwide on Jan. 16.
"Dr. King served his community, and it's important that we do the same so we can continue his legacy of service and compassion for others," said Smith, a sophomore English major.
Volunteers were excited to see Radford University President Brian O. Hemphill at several sites, including Kroger, where Crews helped him shop for food donations.
"I can check that off my bucket list," Crews joked. "But it really means a lot that he cares and takes care of our community, too."
Not far away at the Radford Early Learning Center, senior Hailey Wilt sat amongst a circle of students - young and old - whose ears tuned in to a compelling book, "Martin's Big Words," read aloud by a young teacher.
"Be a good neighbor." "Help make the world a better place." "Be kind to others."
The message resonated with the entire room.
Afterward, the Radford University student volunteers partnered with the preschoolers on a craft that expressed how they might better their communities.
"I'm so excited to work with these kids," Wilt said. "They are so fun, and so is volunteering. It's a big part of my Radford experience."
Mary Beth Keenan, the Reading Hour Program coordinator who helped organize the Learning Center event, said she was pleased by the large turnout of Radford volunteers.
"It's fun to see students from different schools, from different walks of life come together to listen and interact with these children," Keenan said.
That one-on-one attention is "what our students crave," said the center's Assistant Director Pam Cline.
"It's a perfect collaboration," Cline said.
At the Christ Lutheran Church, Radford volunteers served in a much different capacity.
The small crew was tasked with painting part of the fellowship hall.
McConnell Library Instruction Librarian Alyssa Archer, a regular MLK Jr. Day of Service volunteer, gushed about how well-organized the event continues to be each year.
"The Center for Diversity and Inclusion staff do such a great job," said Archer as she carefully brushed a fresh coat of paint on the wall.
In Salem, many volunteers spent the day at Feeding America Southwest Virginia where they processed more than 6,000 pounds of food. New partnerships were formed with agencies throughout the region, including the Friendship Health and Living Community Center in Roanoke, Radford Coffee Company, Roanoke Diversity Center and Pulaski County Department of Social Services.
At the Boys & Girls Club of Southwest Virginia, students cleaned tables, walls and other areas of the Roanoke facility.
Clean classrooms are not only important to the 150 kids who walk through the center's doors each day, said Boys & Girls Club Director of Operations Calvin Curry.
"They're important to our donors, too," he explained.
"We are a volunteer- and donor-driven club. They need to know and see that we are taking care of our students. Today, Radford University took good care of us. The students were fantastic. We are grateful."