Pulling blackberries from the hillsides of Lithia Park didn’t seem the most interesting way to spend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, but it was certainly one of the more productive.
About 22 Southern Oregon University students volunteered at local organizations in the Ashland community on Monday as part of the SOU Civic Engagement Program’s MLK Day of Service.
The idea, explained Brittany Depew, environmental and community engagement coordinator, was to get students off campus and volunteering, creating a stronger connection between the university and the local community.
“There’s some sense in the community that the university is isolated from the town,” she said. “It’s really important for SOU students to have a relationship with our host community.”
Participants split up into two groups, one group of 10 students volunteered at the Ashland Emergency Food Bank, and the other group of 12 students coordinated with the Ashland Parks and Recreation Department, clearing weeds and invasive species around the lower duck ponds in Lithia Park.
“It’s really nice to see students and people giving back to the community,” said Lori Ainsworth, volunteer coordinator for Ashland Parks and Recreation. “Honestly, without these volunteers, doing the hands on weeding and pulling, our parks would be overgrown.”
Ainsworth explained that the department uses extremely few pesticides, following strict guidelines when they do, and consequently relies almost exclusively on volunteers to maintain the parks.
“It’s a great environmental statement, that we want to use fewer pesticides,” she said. “[But] it’s a really tough policy because people expect a park to look a certain way, which is hard to do without pesticides.”
“We totally appreciate the SOU students coming out,” she added, explaining that the group working in Lithia Park spent over two hours clearing the hillside between the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and the Lithia duck ponds.
Although they didn’t finish, by the time they stopped they had created a 3 to 5-foot high, 15-foot long pile of debris.
“People were really motivated to dig in and just do some work,” said Depew. “There was lots of teamwork. It’s not the most fun work.”
Depew explained that the Civic Engagement Program tries to organize at least one big service event per term, where students spend the day volunteering in the community.
“It’s all around just a great experience,” she said. “It can help students better understand their interests and passions by volunteering.”