Day of Service opens doors between WCU, community

Bridge Park in downtown Sylva bustled with people, Catamount pride and the color purple on Saturday, July 20, for the annual Day of Service.

Scattered across the park, booths, games and food created a celebration for service learning, starting at 9 a.m. in the humid weather. Participants could jail and bail out their friends with donations, spin for a prize, hula hoop and talk to the three organizations that the event benefitted. Several well-known faces did time behind bars thanks to their friends’ donations. Dr. Beth Lofquist, interim provost at Western Carolina University; Maurice Moody, mayor of the town of Sylva and Davis Woodard, chief of the Sylva Police Department, were just a few of the several inmates throughout the day. There were also bands playing through the morning, beginning with acoustic duo Perfect Third and followed by John Luke Carter. At 5 p.m., there was a larger benefit concert, sponsored by Soul Infusion tea house and bistro, performed by popular local band Porch 40 and then pop/reggae group PMA. Meanwhile, several separate groups of students volunteered throughout the community at local organizations like Catman2, Inc. or with larger projects like cleaning up Old Cullowhee Road.

The three organizations featured at the event were The Community Table in Sylva, Jackson Neighbors in Need and Communities in Schools. Aside from receiving donations and percentages of sales of T-shirts and memorabilia, the organizations also had shopping lists of needed items available at the Sylva Walmart. Jackson County citizens could shop for the non-profit groups while picking up their groceries and other necessities at the local superstore.

Amy Grimes, executive director of The Community Table, said that this was the organization’s third year at the event. She said she was thankful that this year the event was held in Bridge Park instead of the Walmart parking lot, which was the venue in previous years due to Walmart’s involvement in the project.

Grimes also gushed about the new location for the Table.

“We love it,” she said. “It makes all the difference in the world. We’re very thankful for it.”

Grimes stated that The Community Table’s assistance to the public has severely increased within the last year. Dinner for Friday, July 19, served 118 people, which Grimes explained was actually considered a “slow night.” They also provide over 700 box lunches a month to the locals who are in need.

Jackson County in Need was also not a new face at the event. Ruth McConnell was in charge, filling in for her late husband Charlie McConnell’s role. Jackson County in Need works directly with housing, supplying repairs, weatherization, shelter for the homeless and money to assist with heating bills.

“It’s a together thing,” Ruth McConnell said about the Day of Service. “It’s a group of people concerned about their neighbors.”

The annual Day of Service began with Murat Yazan, who worked in the English department but now serves as associate director of the Writing and Learning Commons at Western Carolina. Yazan worked at Walmart before coming to WCU and hatched an idea with a fellow employee.

“It was a while back when Mitchell Ruff was manager at the Sylva Walmart,” said Yazan. “We grew up together with Walmart. [I] started there as a stockman. A lot of us were hired during that period when we knew that the store wasn’t corporate but local.”

Yazan explained that Walmart used to close early for an employee family picnic once a year and that the store celebrated and respected partnerships within the community.

“This is the culture we all grew up in,” continued Yazan. “It was about community, not just about work.”

Yazan explained that Walmart and WCU could seem like “gated communities” to the citizens of Jackson County who were not involved with either place. Yazan and Ruff wanted to open up both institutions to the community.

“What if we took the QEP values [of WCU] and looked at Walmart’s three mission statements?” said Yazan. “What if we brought that together and have one big day of service?”

The idea was born, and the first event kicked off in 2011.

When Ruff transferred to a different Walmart, Yazan worried about the future of the project. However, the new manager, Ryan Davis, loved the idea as well. Before the event could begin, however, there were still questions to answer.

“What are we going to do if we do a day of service?” said Yazan. “How does that help build a community? How do we have the community also participate in this? Let’s do a carnival because that’ll be fun! We wanted to bring kids into it. That’s when it really started to grow.”

The Academic Success Program soon became involved, and the day was slated for the summer because of the class schedule. ASP students are incoming WCU freshmen who want to get a head start on their college education.

“It’s a great way to introduce a cohort of students who are coming to our community for the first time,” said Yazan, “and they can see what our values are. . . It’s like a giant picnic!”

Now, Glenda Hensley, director of First Year Experience, and Janina Dehart, director of ASP, run the event alongside Katy Elders, project manager. This year, 139 students were involved along with 40-50 faculty members, according to Dehart.

“We’ve actually done service with ASP for a number of years. I think we actually started back in 2004,” said Dehart. “The first few years we would just take the students out in small groups on different days. So, it was small scale. Then, when we partnered [with Walmart], we joined it all together to make it one day of service, and Murat [Yazan] helped that come to being.”

This year, the town of Sylva became more involved, particularly with the downtown shops.

“We reached out to them, but I will say that the reach out was an easy one,” said Hensley. “Paige Roberson, who is the town manager, is Western alum. In fact, she was on one of the subcommittees for our ‘Vision 2020’ planning last year. She’s very supportive of the things that we’re doing and is very committed to the idea of service, anyway. So, it was kind of an easy partnership to expand.”

Dehart added, “Because we had been involved with them in the past, we already had those connections. Then, from them participating in those past two years, they wanted to take on a more active role. They basically told us at that time, ‘Hey, we want to be more involved. We can do more.’ That’s where the idea of moving downtown and then involving businesses downtown [came from]. I would say that it was a lot of their initiative.”

The 2013 Day of Service was a smashing success in serving the community and the turnout for the carnival.

“. . . As the event grew, Katy showed up, and it actually took on a life much bigger this year than, I think, any of us thought. I mean, we’re tickled to death, but it blossomed big and fast,” said Hensley. “It has been an incredible team effort this year. This is such a team effort. I think this is the epitome of what a good service project ought to be, because you’ve got the team here that you care about it, from our student perspective, but we also care about our town. You pull out any one of those threads, and this would have never happened.”

For the future, the hope is that one day the event will reach out further than Sylva and Cullowhee.

“I’m hoping it will continue to grow,” said Yazan. “I’d like to see it go further out, eventually make it regional.”

For more information on the ASP program, contact Dehart at 828-227-2217 or