The Big Event
KU’s dedicated day of community service returns after COVID cancellation
By 10:30 on a crisp, overcast Saturday morning in April, four students are hard at work rebuilding a retaining wall in Suzi Cammon’s backyard. Before most college students would even think about getting out of bed, these volunteers have already moved bags of mulch, assembled three birdbaths and relocated a piece of antique garden décor for the Lawrence homeowner.
“They’ve been here since 9:30,” says Cammon, g’70, a retired high school counselor. “They’ve just worked their tails off, and we’re not quite an hour into it.”
The students were participating in The Big Event, KU’s annual day of community service, which brings together thousands of Jayhawks to help local residents with home projects such as raking leaves, painting fences and washing windows. This year marked the 11th anniversary of the event, which was canceled last spring because of COVID-19.
Though the April 17 event was scaled down compared to previous seasons, no less effort went into ensuring its success. Wichita senior Jacob Hammil, executive director of The Big Event, led a team of about 15 student organizers who worked diligently throughout the academic year to prepare for the occasion, coordinating campus and community outreach and fundraising.
“We just want to give back to the community as students, faculty and staff, because the community gives to KU all year long,” Hammil says. “They support a college campus and it’s definitely a big thank you to them.”
The Big Event took shape in 2010 as a partnership between KU’s Center for Community Outreach, Student Union Activities and Student Senate, but as the effort gained traction, it branched off as a separate, student-led organization. In recent years, as many as3,000 students, faculty and staff have served more than 400 job sites in the community; this year, because of lingering COVID-19 concerns, organizers limited the event to just over 400 volunteers, who worked at nearly 90 locations across town. All work was performed outdoors.
“We just want to give back to the community as students, faculty and staff, because the community gives to KU all year long. They support a college campus and it’s definitely a big thank you to them.”
The No. 1 job request from Lawrence residents? Raking, Hammil says with a laugh. “We have over 6,000 rakes, which is a lot of rakes,” he says, explaining that nearly all Big Event funds raised during the first few years purchased tools, which were supplied by area retailers at a discount. “We’ve got rakes, shovels, loppers, clippers, basically anything other than power tools.”
Despite COVID-19 restrictions, the atmosphere at the Burge Union courtyard was lively the morning of the event, as masked volunteers arrived as early as 9 a.m. to check in, mingle with friends and grab some Big Event swag and a breakfast burrito before gathering supplies and heading to their designated job sites for the four-hour work shift.
Natalia Gonzalez, a sophomore pre-nursing major and member of the coed pre-health fraternity Delta Epsilon Mu, was among the volunteers eager to see the event return. “I was really sad that we weren’t able to do it last year,” she says, “so I wanted to do everything I could to get out there and help the community.”
Gonzalez teamed up with three friends to haul landscaping rocks into flower beds with Michelle Compton-Muñoz, program coordinator for KU’s Self Graduate Programs. “It’s a huge help,” says Compton-Muñoz, g’15, who has worked with Big Event volunteers for the past five years. “We never would have been able to accomplish this without them. My husband and I have already been working for months getting this all ready for them, and moving this rock would have taken us days more.”
Bailee Myers, who served as executive director when she was a senior at KU, coordinates marketing and events for KU Memorial Union and advises Big Event organizers. She knows firsthand how much work goes into the communitywide effort and commends the students for persevering in the face of the pandemic. “That’s been tough,” says Myers, b’17, who explained that students raised just shy of $10,000 for the 2021 event, compared to nearly $20,000 in previous years. “But I think it’s really been finding the positive in everything. If a sponsor says, ‘No, we can’t do anything,’ we’re just excited that they actually responded. We get that the community is hurting just as much as everyone else, and we appreciate their support for us.”
Hammil has kept his focus on the positive, too. “Getting to have an opportunity for students to serve the Lawrence community is always an awesome thing to do,” he says. “I know that sometimes students kind of get siloed within college, and showing them that Lawrence is a vibrant and amazing community and being able to create those connections is priceless.”
Watch as Wichita senior Jacob Hammil, executive director of The Big Event, explains the origins, challenges and future goals for KU’s dedicated day of service in the Lawrence community.