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Beautiful day in the neighborhood: OrangeSeeds group organizes community service event to clean up Syracuse Northside

Beautification of the city of Syracuse is not a small task. It calls for a big event.

On Saturday, hundreds of students volunteered on the city’s Northside as a part of Syracuse University’s ninth annual The Big Event.

The Big Event is a nationally recognized community service project organized by OrangeSeeds, a first-year student leadership and empowerment program at SU. Led by students called “seeds,” The Big Event is a one-day project developed during the course of a year that focuses on a specific type of community service in a chosen Syracuse neighborhood, said Jennifer Rehkugler, a freshman public relations major and member.

OrangeSeeds members are split into four committees — marketing, community relations, logistics and finance — through which they independently organize The Big Event by selecting the project’s focus and contacting organizations that meet their vision, Rehkugler said. This year, The Big Event’s focus was on beautification within the Northside of Syracuse.

“To us, beautification seemed to be the most effective way to get a big group of people together and use that force to make an impact,” Rehkugler said. “Raising money is one thing, but getting people to do hands-on work is so much more rewarding for everyone involved.”

This year, 300 people registered for The Big Event, and close to 250 attended, Rehkugler said. Registration for The Big Event closed early due to a high number of registered volunteers.

On Saturday, participants were assigned to one of 11 locations, including Assumption Food Pantry, Northside CYO and LeMoyne Elementary School, according to the event itinerary. Volunteers traveled to each assigned location by color-coded bus, and were accompanied by two designated members of OrangeSeeds.

At Assumption Food Pantry, volunteers worked to clear debris and weeds from the site to create a community garden, said Simon Pearson, director of the Assumption Food Pantry. After cleaning away debris, Pearson said the volunteers planted bulbs and vegetable seeds.

But it was not always a well-kept community space, Pearson said.

“The area used to be used as a garbage dump, where people would deposit syringes and other terrible things,” Pearson said. “We don’t want kids playing near debris. We’d rather have them play in a garden.”

Brother Nicholas Spano, director of the Assumption Food Pantry, said areas like the community garden, which used to have 4-feet-tall weeds, aren’t uncommon in Syracuse. Community gardens are a great example of The Big Event’s goal of beautification because they serve as a way to bring people together to beautify not only their neighborhood, but also their lives, he said.

The perception of community service has turned into glamorous mission trips to places like Nicaragua and Jamaica, Spano said. He said many students don’t realize the city in which they attend school is in need of major volunteering and rebuilding.

“It’s important for SU students to get involved because the university is probably one of the biggest things left in Syracuse,” Spano said. “I think that OrangeSeeds has a lot of potential because once you plant that seed in someone early on, they know the needs of the city before it’s too late.”

Early in the fall semester, OrangeSeeds members took a bus tour around downtown Syracuse as a way to familiarize themselves with the city, said Aysha Seedat, director of OrangeSeeds’ community relations. From there, she said the group chose to focus on the Northside community of Syracuse.

Seedat, a freshman policy studies major, said the committees decided to make beautification their goal because it was the easiest way for a large group of people to have a substantial effect in a short amount of time. She said beautification not only cleans up a community, but also leads to long-term improvements, such as increasing property values.

“When we were cleaning up, a lot of the things I was finding on the ground were things I would not like to see as a child,” Seedat said. “A cleaner community definitely contributes to a child’s upbringing, so what we’re doing is important on a lot of different fronts.”

Many of the volunteers who picked up trash at the Northside CYO site were helped by members of the community, who gave them additional trash bags and signs of encouragement, Seedat said. She said the positive atmosphere emitted by the volunteers was visibly infectious across the community.

Though organizers said The Big Event was a success, it didn’t come without stressful moments, Seedat said. At the beginning of the second semester, the executive board — made up of OrangeSeeds alumni — placed the responsibility of The Big Event entirely in the hands of the freshman members, she said.

In the end, she said the only problem was having a larger turnout than expected.

“The committees had to redistribute volunteers into new groups at the last minute due to the sheer number of those involved,” Seedat said. “It was great that everyone wanted to get involved. I’m really happy with the turnout.”

Thomas Wolfe, dean and senior vice president of student affairs, attended the first portion of the event when volunteers organized in the Life Sciences Complex. Wolfe praised the efforts of OrangeSeeds and its involvement in The Big Event.

“What we’re saying with this movement is that our life doesn’t begin and end within Syracuse University,” Wolfe said. “This is a big event in more ways than just its name.”

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