University of Chicago staff members give back to the community

Carrying paint cans, drywall and construction equipment, University of Chicago staff volunteers from various departments traveled to the far South and West sides of the city on April 24 and 25 to lend a helping hand to families.

On Friday, volunteers from the University Community Service Center, the Office of Civic Engagement, the Institute of Politics and Career Advancement traveled to the Morgan Park neighborhood to do renovation work with the Thrivent Builds with Habitat for Humanity partnership. A day later, staff members from Facilities Services led a team of volunteers, including UChicago Laboratory Schools students, to work on refurbishing a home in the Austin neighborhood.

Arriving at the Morgan Park site with four of his colleagues, Matthew Jaffe, director of communications for the Institute of Politics, said the University Community Service Center’s staff Day of Service was an enriching and fulfilling experience.

“It’s crucial to get out of the Hyde Park bubble and engage with the surrounding areas,” said Jaffe. “Only by doing that can we appreciate and strengthen the relationships we have with the neighboring communities.”

When Jaffe and his co-volunteers arrived at South Carpenter Street, they set to work landscaping, installing beams and setting up drywall in two homes. The 15 UChicago volunteers contributed 100 hours of service to the project, saving Habitat for Humanity time and ensuring an earlier completion to the job.

One of the families the volunteers helped is Ella Hippe and her two daughters, Lenisha and Thalma. The Chicago Public Schools employee and her family have been living in substandard housing with structural issues. Her daughters are especially looking forward to having their own rooms in their new home.

Days of service coordinated by UChicago work units and departments provide faculty, staff and students with informal opportunities to meet local residents on the South Side and in other neighborhoods across the city, said Micaela Vargas, executive assistant for the Office of Civic Engagement.

“We’re all ambassadors of the University,” said Vargas, “and the personal connections we make with members of the community can be far more meaningful than any official meeting.”

Despite the dreary weather, the volunteers on Saturday were lively and talkative as they worked on the home of the Bolden family. For three years, volunteers from Facilities Services have partnered with Rebuilding Together Metro Chicago, repairing the homes of low-income, elderly and disabled Chicagoans. Staff members from the Office of Civic Engagement and students from the Lab Schools have joined the Facilities team for the past two years.

Kevin Austin, director of building services, has taken a guiding role overseeing the project, which gives him the chance to meet fellow UChicago staff members. “Day to day, I don’t see all of these people,” Austin said of his team. “Away from work you get to know people, see them in different contexts, and I think it builds relationships that improve the work environment overall.”

Volunteers from Facilities Services had been working on the home for eight days, tackling crucial projects like replacing asbestos tiles in the basement with new flooring, repairing the furnace and hot water heater, installing handrails for the staircases and more. In the three years that Facilities Services has done this work, they’ve never had a request from the homeowners that they couldn’t accomplish, said Tiffany Grant, executive assistant of Facilities Services. “Our guys are very capable. We usually go above and beyond as far as home repairs.”

Emmett Bolden, who lives in the home with his wife, Cathy, watched from the doorway as volunteers carried out old gardening equipment, already replaced by tools in his new shed, and laid them out to be recycled. “He’s having a little trouble letting go,” Austin joked, cracking a smile from the homeowner.

Bolden retired this year from the Bulls/Sox Academy in Lisle, Ill. A cancer survivor and keen gardener, he once cultivated nine plants from a single ‘dumb cane’ plant, which he said reminds him that he can turn little into much. His wife said she was the first African-American woman to graduate from Coyne Electrical School, now Coyne College. Despite some health issues, she spends her time caring for ailing family members and neighbors.

Both of the Boldens have been immensely appreciative of the help they’ve recieved on their home.

Grant, who coordinates volunteers for the Rebuilding Together project, said she can’t help but get attached to the families they meet. “Even though it’s not someone in my family, it could very well be,” said Grant. “It’s great to just be able to give, to let them know that somebody cares about them and they’re not forgotten.”