May 16, 2013 Leave a comment
The desire to make a difference doesn’t end when students graduate from James Madison University. If you want evidence, keep reading. For today’s blog, Assistant Director of Alumni Relations James Irwin writes about the recent Big Event that occurred in Harrisonburg — and far beyond.
Seeing the bigger picture
by James Irwin (’06), assistant director of Alumni Relations
There’s a map of the United States located on page 46 of the Fall 2012 edition of Madison magazine. Framed in purple and with state boundaries etched in gold, the map is decorated with paw prints pinpointing alumni locations for The Big Event, JMU’s annual day of service.
The Fall 2013 edition is going to require a bigger map.
Brought together by a collective sense of community, more than 150 alumni worldwide participated in The Big Event in April, totaling 525 volunteer hours. Alumni locations included two spots on the West Coast (Los Angeles and San Francisco) and one in Johannesburg, South Africa, the first JMU Big Event location hosted outside the United States.
“Living 8,000 miles from Harrisonburg certainly feels a long way away,” said Lawson Ricketts (’05), who organized the Johannesburg event. (He and a handful of JMU alumni helped plant a winter vegetable garden at Turning Point Home, a boy’s orphanage supported by St. George’s Church). “I thought this was an important initiative to get involved with — particularly within the context of South Africa and the poverty throughout the country.”
Ricketts has lived in South Africa since 2008. He had been on safari — “literally, in the middle of the African bush, tracking elephants” — when he spotted a JMU lanyard belonging to another Madison graduate. She was researching black-backed jackals in the Madikwe Game Reserve and the two fell into a conversation that took them halfway around the world.
“It got me thinking ‘how many other Dukes might actually be in South Africa?’” Ricketts said. “Once I saw The Big Event email come through, I knew immediately we should try and pull something together.”
Ricketts knew two other JMU grads in South Africa — “they jumped at the opportunity to get involved,” — and he reached out to the JMU alumni office in February about participating in The Big Event.
The request caused quite a stir.
“I was a little shocked, actually,” said Amanda Leech (’09), chapter coordinator in the JMU Office of Alumni Relations. “To know someone halfway around the world is interested in doing something like this — it’s inspiring stuff.”
The South Africa group was one of 14 alumni Big Event locations. Dukes volunteered at environmental cleanups, food drives and charity runs through organizations like the SPCA, the American Cancer Society, St. Jude Children’s Hospital, Equikids and Walk MS.
“Our work was completely hands-on — weeding, shoveling and raking,” Baltimore alumni service coordinator Cory Hill (’06) said. “I think the Big Event is a vehicle that can provide an opportunity to connect JMU alumni, not only to each other but to their respective neighborhoods and communities in a unique way.”
Participation in The Big Event was a no-brainer, according to Baltimore chapter president Maria Heiser (’07).
“To know that we were joining fellow alumni all over the world and contributing to a great cause was a powerful feeling,” she said.
Big Event student and alumni programs totaled more than 850 volunteers in 57 service locations. Alumni in Philadelphia and Rhode Island did trash pickups (about 500 pounds) to clear neighborhoods. Dukes in Dallas/Fort Worth packaged 7,675 meals for needy families. In San Francisco, in partnership with Big Brothers Big Sisters and TOMS shoes, 20 alumni spent $40 of their own money to purchase and decorate a pair of TOMS for a child in need.
“I think these types of events are what makes JMU stand out among many public institutions,” said Ricketts, referencing The Big Event and Madison’s Alternative Break programs. “[These are] of the multitude of programs offered at JMU that made me see ‘the bigger picture’ and the need for philanthropy throughout the world.”