To Sandra Ruelas-Aranda, a freshman at Fort Hays State University from the tiny southwest Kansas town of Rolla, Hays feels like a big town.
To Vanessa Flores, a freshman from Denver, Hays feels like a small town.
But on Saturday morning, both were at the Habitat for Humanity ReStore, 2918 Vine, volunteering as part of The Big Event, an annual day of service across the nation that is hosted by students at colleges and universities.
“I like doing community service,” said Ruelas-Aranda, who is majoring in nursing and medical Spanish. “Back home we don’t have clubs. I just like to do it for the service. I just like helping people. We do a lot of projects.”
About 160 students, faculty and staff were volunteering Saturday at a couple dozen locations for the ninth annual Big Event at Fort Hays, said Jacki Dougherty, Wichita, a junior majoring in organizational leadership, and community relations director for the Fort Hays Student Government Association.
Ruelas-Aranda and Flores were at ReStore as members of Circle K, a leadership program of Kiwanis International for college-age kids.
“It gives you something else to do,” said Flores, who is majoring in pre-veterinary medicine, and was helping move large items of furniture with Ruelas-Aranda in the big warehouse store room of ReStore. “I get bored, Hays is so small. I like meeting new people and educating myself and helping other people.”
At the front of the store, ReStore volunteer Elaine Pfannenstiel, Hays, manned the ReStore check-out counter.
Marie Ko, an FHSU sophomore from Logan, was one of the three more Circle K volunteers arranging figurines and dishes on the retail shelves. One item, in particular, caught her eye.
“The bell, look at it!” said Ko, who is majoring in finance.
“Where do you see bells like that, it’s so cute!” said Grecia Ruano, a freshman from Denver majoring in criminal justice.
“We are dusting and cleaning,” explained Circle K volunteer Lauren Whittington, a junior from Fleming, Colo., majoring in radiology technology.
“It feels so good to volunteer,” Ko said, “especially when you don’t have anything else to do anyway. It feels good to help.”
The Big Event is just one of many Circle K volunteer activities, said the students, whether it’s making blankets for the Salvation Army, care packages and letters for soldiers, or Valentine cards or Halloween pumpkins for seniors at Via Christi Village, Hays. May 1 they help with Bowl for Kids, a fundraiser by Big Brothers Big Sisters of Ellis County.
No wonder they are at The Big Event.
“Circle K, they’re like the pros of volunteering,” said SGA’s Dougherty. “They know what they’re doing.”
Other projects on Saturday’s agenda for The Big Event included trail clean up at Sternberg Museum of Natural History, sorting donations at Trinity Lutheran Church’s Jana’s Closet, office organization at Options Domestic and Sexual Violence Services, painting at the Ellis County Fair, and landscaping at Bethesda Place and the Fort Hays State Historic Site, among others.
“Kind of a sad thing about today,” said Dougherty, who helped launch the volunteers Saturday morning from the Black and Gold Room of the Memorial Union on campus, handing out t-shirts, work gloves and shovels. “We’ve had to turn away some volunteers this morning because we don’t have enough projects.”
While this is the ninth year on campus for The Big Event, it’s the first year for SGA to partner on the event with the Fort Hays State University Alumni Association and the FHSU Foundation, said Jason Williby, CEO of the foundation, the non-profit fundraising arm for FHSU.
“Our mission is to support FHSU with private gifts,” Williby said. “Gen Z and millennials, they’re more interested in philanthropy if it ties to service. This event was already going on through the students, so we saw it as an opportunity to tie service and philanthropy together.”
In an email this year, FHSU President Tisa Mason urged faculty and staff to join students at The Big Event.
At First Presbyterian Church, Williby took up a saw to trim bushes where playground equipment will soon be constructed for Happy Days Childcare & Preschool, an independent, nonprofit day care center housed in the church.
“We wanted to get this area prepared so it will be ready,” said Presbyterian’s pastor Rev. Celeste Lasich.
Jason Ball, the FHSU Foundation’s director of development, raked leaves.
Schuyler Coates, the FHSU Foundation’s director of annual giving, accepted hedge clippers from Lasich’s husband, Dennis Wilson. Coates headed for a big row of bushy bushes.
“Just don’t turn them into elephants or anything,” Willson said.
“If I do you can’t be mad,” laughed Coates.
“This community is so generous to the university,” said Williby. “We wanted to work side by side with the students. We hope that it grows every year, and part of that is having projects to do.”
Besides students, some ideas for projects this year came from Kiwanis, Hays City Commissioner Sandy Jacobs, and Hays Convention and Visitors Bureau Executive Director Melissa Dixon, said Williby.
At the Fort Hays Historic Site, south of town on the U.S. Highway 183 Bypass, Tammy Younger, site administrator, was happy with the progress there by 10:30 a.m.
“They’ve gotten a lot done,” she said of the volunteers, who had already loaded up several truckloads of branches and helped take them to the dump.
Jackie Tarango, a Dodge City freshman, and Alvaro Escobedo, a sophomore from Salina, were trimming back the dead brown shoots on a clump of pampas grass with several others on their team. Both are senators in the FHSU Student Senate.
“What is this, what are we cutting?” Said Tarango, who is majoring in criminal justice. While she’d never seen the plant before, Escobedo said it was familiar to him from having been part of Prayer in Action, a week of yard work sponsored annually by Catholic Charities.
“We carried lumber from the visitors center to the guardhouse,” said Elodie Jones, a professor in the College of Education, who also helped with the pampas grass. “This helps the Fort to prepare for Spring visitors.”
With clippers in hand, Jones and a student were set to clear brush from under one of the Fort’s many big evergreen trees.
A loud melody from the tree alerted the team to a bird amongst the tree branches.
“There it is,” she said as the bird flew out. “It was a dove.”
Also at the fort, Jill Arensdorf, chair and associate professor of Leadership Studies, helped.
“I think it’s so important for the community and Fort Hays to work together,” Jones said. “And I think it’s so important to be a role model about the value of giving back to your community and volunteerism.”
Jones, who once was a student at Felten Middle School and graduated from Hays High School and Fort Hays, said working with her students also helps her get to know them.
“And the Fort has been fantastic, they had donuts and juice and coffee for us, ” she said. “So far it hasn’t seemed like work.”