Group leaders want to stretch service beyond just a day

By Christopher Bared

Group leaders want to stretch service beyond just a day

By Christopher Bared
Student organizers for the National Gandhi Day of Service hope to foster a passion for long-term community assistance through a series of in-person and virtual events.

When the coronavirus pandemic broke out in March, organizations across the country found creative solutions to keep functioning and keep their members safe. Almost everyone, except essential workers, was restricted to virtual events or small, socially distanced gatherings. Some saw pandemic restrictions as obstacles, and others saw them as opportunities to improve.

Devarsh Desai is among the latter. A junior biochemistry and health science major at the University of Miami, he also serves as co-chair of the Butler Center for Service and Leadership’s National Gandhi Day of Service, which officially kicks off on Nov. 6. According to Desai, the pandemic has given the group the chance to “change the culture of the [day of service].”

In the past, Desai, co-chair Roshini Murugadass, and the executive board of the National Gandhi Day of Service have connected students with local organizations so that they could participate in service opportunities whenever the day of service took place. In the pre-pandemic era, the Gandhi Day of Service had excellent student turnout.

“Gandhi Day has always been a huge part of UM culture, as students come together and serve the local community,” said Murugadass, a senior majoring in microbiology and immunology, with minors in public health and chemistry.

This year, it was especially important for the student organizers to continue the event, due to the uncertain times and the greater need for service in the Miami area, she said. The committee continued planning with that in mind.

“Gandhi Day has been a successful event on paper, like you have 500 participants and say it’s amazing to have so many students coming in,” Desai said, “but when you look at a microlevel there are some gaps.”

The gaps, Desai said, were the fact that students usually did not engage with their community beyond a single day or a single service opportunity. That was because students did not always resonate with the service activities or there was not a measurable human effect. The impact was immense, but often short-lived. Desai aims to change that starting this year.

Desai said the goal was to have a day of service “where people not only engage in community service for that day, but also a day where people commit to service projects long term—because real impact is created in the long term.”

Rather than choosing service opportunities based on accessibility, the National Gandhi Day of Service executive board was more selective in choosing the service opportunities for this year’s day of service. They chose to address issues that are current and strike a chord with students, according to Desai.

“This year we wanted to offer projects that volunteers would find interesting and meaningful,” Murugadass said. “It was very important to me that volunteers have the opportunity to showcase their skills in an enjoyable way to help those in need.” 

On Friday, Nov. 6, the executive board is hosting an in-person event in partnership with the student organization Camp Kesem. Participants will help put together care packages and video messages for children who are impacted by a parent’s cancer.

Also on Friday and in person, there is a feminine hygiene product drive for local women’s shelters.

On Saturday, the organization will host various virtual events where students can participate on their own time.

And lastly, on Sunday, they are hosting a gathering to make personal protective equipment for homeless shelters in the Miami-Dade community.

“Gandhi Day is traditionally one of the largest service events that the Butler Center supports on an annual basis. Given the many challenges that COVID-19 has presented to many of our student groups, we were incredibly impressed with the organization’s dedication to still making this event a reality for our campus community,” said Lindsey Woods, assistant director for the Butler Center and co-advisor to Gandhi Day. “In particular, we are excited that even students who chose to attend the university fully remote this semester still have a way to participate and make a difference through virtual volunteer opportunities.”

All of the in-person events will be outdoors and in adherence with University public health and safety guidelines. This includes mandatory mask wearing, plexiglass dividers, social distancing, and having hand sanitizer stations available.

For Desai, the pandemic has created even more need for community service. “Engaging in the community is such an important thing to do as a person of this generation,” he said. “Especially with the pandemic going on, when people from disadvantaged communities are hurting right now.”

The organization’s student leaders have done an excellent job at taking this as a chance to be innovative, while also ensuring that necessary safety procedures are made priority, Woods said. Collette Mighty, assistant director of programs for the Butler Center who also serves as co-advisor to the student organization, agrees.

“The students have done a great job of providing opportunities that will allow all students at the U to give back to various communities in their own meaningful way based on their preference and passions,” she said.

Although the events are smaller, Desai hopes the impact will be greater. “Helping others should be cathartic in the sense that the feeling you get is something even words can’t express,” he said.

The National Gandhi Day of Service event takes place once every semester. The upcoming day of service is the first one being held during the pandemic. It’s a test run for the spring semester, according to Desai.

He aims to maintain his role as co-chair of the National Gandhi Day of Service organization, even though the traditional term limit is one semester or, at most, one academic year. He wants to keep improving the event, despite the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic.

“When the environment becomes difficult, it gives you the opportunity to create and innovate, and that's what makes you a better leader,” Desai said.

Visit Engage for more information regarding the National Gandhi Day of Service events.