Students celebrate service at PMADD


Rachel Feil, Ashley Ward-Willis and Sydney Massenberg (left to right) cook chili for the 46 people who attend the Circles program at the YWCA in Homewood. (Photo by Theo Schwarz | Senior Staff Photographer)

By Sarah Shearer and Joanna Li, Contributing Editors

This isn’t the first time Jack Eschmann’s been on an urban farm. Standing outside on the chilly, rainy Saturday, the first-year engineering major said the garden is familiar territory for him.

“I’ve done it throughout all of high school,” Eschmann said of urban farm projects, “So it was pretty awesome that I got to do that.”

More than 4,000 students joined Eschmann this Saturday for Pitt Make a Difference Day. Students registered for the day of service as individuals or with a group, and worked at an assigned site doing a wide variety of community service acts.

Janine Fisher, director of marketing and communications of student affairs, said students worked with more than 100 community partners at this year’s PMADD, many of which already have a relationship with the University through PittServes, who organized PMADD.

“[PittServes] does service throughout the year,” Fisher said. “That’s a relationship they have put in place.”

Managing an event with thousands of students and more than 100 sites isn’t a small undertaking, but it’s one Fisher is happy to be a part of.

“It’s a big ordeal … we really need support from all angles to pull it off,” Fisher said. “I just like to do my part … I’m a Pitt alumni, and this wasn’t here when I was here.”

This is Pitt’s 11th annual PMADD, a tradition that Pitt’s Student Government Board began in 2007. According to Shawn Ahearn, director of communications for the division of student affairs, in a previous article by The Pitt News, SGB started PMADD as a spinoff of Make a Difference Day, a national organization that plans a day of service in communities across the country.

Seeing success in the event’s first years, PittServes started releasing surveys to obtain student feedback.

Beginning with the 2012 survey, 96 percent of 2,556 PMADD participants noted that they planned on volunteering in the future. This trend continued, and in the 2016 survey, 97.5 percent of 3,850 attendees reported that they planned on once again volunteering through PMADD.

“There was some uncertainty that first year about whether or not we could actually pull off the logistics of sending a couple thousand students out into the communities on school buses,” Vice Provost and Dean of Students Kenyon Bonner said in a 2017 press release. “But our students, staff and faculty rose to the occasion, and it has been very rewarding to be a part of a program that has grown so much during the past decade.”

Residence halls and several clubs, such as Pitt Psychology Club and the Asian Student Alliance, went in groups to their PMADD service projects — a popular choice among first-year students like Eschmann.

Eschmann, with other participants from Forbes Hall Floor Five and a few other groups, unloaded from a school bus at their worksite at about 9:15 a.m. The students were assigned to the Community Garden and Farm in Homewood, where they worked both indoors and out.

Pitt first-year student and engineering major Aaron Keehan also volunteered at the event, where he spent the morning cleaning the center’s library before heading outdoors to clean gutters and plant a tree. Community service is nothing new for Keehan, either.

“I’m an Eagle Scout,” Keehan said. “I love doing community service, it’s just satisfying to go out and help others.”

PMADD reaches people and community members from all over the City of Pittsburgh. From the South Side to Dormont to Bloomfield, volunteers worked outdoors cleaning up gardens and in community centers repainting.

Fisher said PMADD’s time of year affects the types of projects students most-often encounter.

“Because of the time of year, in October, there’s often some winterizing component for outdoor gardens,” Fisher said. “A lot of time it’s winterizing gardens which is necessary but hard work. It takes a lot of manpower to do it.”

Winterizing — the process of preparing something for winter — is what many volunteers did at the urban farm. Pitt first-year engineering student Daniel Feathers did his fair share of it, working at the farm’s greenhouse to pull weeds and put down a layer of topsoil.

Though this was Feathers’ first year participating in PMADD, he said he’s had previous community service experience from volunteering on mission trips in the past.

“It was an urban garden in a block of residential area,” Feathers said of the PMADD site. “They had a greenhouse area that we helped clear out and get all the weeds out and we put down some topsoil so they could plant some plants there.”

PMADD isn’t just limited to the Pittsburgh region, either. All Pitt branch campuses participate in the day of service — like students at Pitt Greensburg who spent the day doing community service projects with organizations like Habitat for Humanity and Adopt-a-Highway.

Pitt alumni could also take part — this year, the Pitt Alumni Association worked with PittServes to organize several meetings places in cities across America, some as far away as Las Vegas and Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Whether serving thousands of miles away or pulling weeds the next neighborhood over, PMADD remains a Pitt tradition that, one pair of hands at a time, continues to make an impact on the community.

“These students really killed it here today,” Fisher said. “Every year when I see how many students register and actually come and really work very hard, it’s impressive to me. I’m always amazed every year.”

Contributed reporting by Grant Burgman, News Editor

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