When the Covid-19 pandemic caused most student activities to shut down in the spring of 2020, one important activity continued: service. Through IMPACT Local, University of Georgia students can continue serving without packing a single suitcase, right in their adopted hometown of Athens.
Born from the students’ desire to continue serving during the travel restrictions of the pandemic, IMPACT has so far hosted 11 service learning programs in the Athens-Clarke community, addressing community needs ranging from food justice to women’s health. Though the “Local” program is in its infancy, productive relationships have already been forged with several Athens-area nonprofits, including Divas Who Win, the Athens Diaper Bank, Butterfly Dreams, Project Red, Food for Lives and Clarke County schools.
IMPACT, formerly Alternative Spring Break, began at UGA in 1994 with a group of students interested in spending the week of spring break engaged in community service as opposed to the more traditional pastimes of college spring break. Since the beginning of the program, nearly 3,500 UGA students have participated and traveled to dozens of cities across the United States to participate in meaningful service projects that benefit those communities.
The program, advised by the department of Engagement, Leadership, and Service in UGA Student Affairs, has since expanded beyond spring to academic breaks throughout the year. Now, IMPACT has added its service learning model to the numerous UGA programs that engage locally with the Athens community. Karis Hill, assistant director for community engagement, said that this additional focus on serving and learning in the local community is a clear fit for the organization.
“IMPACT has such a good reputation of great service across the country,” said Hill. “It’s high time for us to consider how we’re engaging our local community and connecting Athens and UGA. To do service well in other communities, it’s good for the students to get that right in their local community.”
IMPACT’s mission is to engage students in affordable, substance-free, experiential service learning projects that encourage an understanding of pressing social issues in a significant way. The organization strives to address community needs through direct and indirect service, as well as provide students the knowledge of social issues in our communities. By providing new perspectives and hearing the stories of others, students gain invaluable experiences that bring them together with people in the community.
Sophia Trentacosta, a UGA student who serves as IMPACT’s site leader coordinator, noted the importance of the service-learning component of the experiences. Students learn the “why” behind the community need and their service, and reflect on their engagement. She is particularly excited about applying this model to service in UGA’s home community of Athens.
“Students tend to live very much within the realm of the campus and don’t engage that much with the broader community,” said Trentacosta. “Athens is more than just UGA, and students have a responsibility to learn about and connect with that broader community.”
The IMPACT Local opportunities provide a new range of benefits for students who are unable to attend the weeklong spring break and winter break trips. Students can fulfill their experiential learning credit by participating in two local trips. The local, weekend-long programs require a shorter time commitment, and there are more opportunities to participate throughout the semester. The program has proven popular — all currently planned local service opportunities are full with wait lists.
The programs themselves consist of an initial service engagement in the morning, followed by lunch, and then an educational component during which students hear from the nonprofits and the community members they serve.
“An essential piece is to reflect,” said Trentacosta. “We talk about the service, discuss the organization, engage with the community members, and think through how our identities engage with the service issue and the community.”
Trentacosta said that IMPACT has always designed the learning piece of their programs around broader issues of need and justice, and that the service trips themselves are simply a single opportunity to engage hands-on within those topics.
“We want to give students a chance to learn about these issues in Athens, in addition to communities across our country,” she said. “The hope of doing that is to facilitate more sustainable, long-term relationships with community partners, whether that looks like deeper, year-round involvement with a particular local nonprofit, or sustained local involvement from an individual student.”
For more information about IMPACT Service Breaks, visit https://els.uga.edu/service/impact-service-breaks/