More than 4,500 new students and 850 volunteer leaders fanned out across Los Angeles today for a day of service at 22 destinations, the biggest student volunteer event of its kind in the nation.
Roused from their beds early to catch yellow school buses from campus, several students said they were "pumped" by the excitement of being part of this massive effort to work at schools, parks, homeless shelters, beaches, a hospital, senior center and other locations even before they started classes.
"I'm just excited to go," said freshman Charley Guptill, of San Jose, shaking off the morning chill. "I'm not from L.A. and haven't really seen a lot of the city. So I want to see something that's not a tourist spot. And I'm excited to serve. As a Bruin, you should want to help out. It's not like I'm hoping to get a really easy job today. It's whatever I can do to help."
The growing excitement was palpable as spontaneous eight-clap cheers broke out among the clutches of new Bruins, many of whom saw the day of service as a way to give back as well as an opportunity to bond further with newfound friends and roommates.
Greeting students as they loaded onto buses were Chancellor Gene Block and his wife, Carol, who accompanied one busload to the downtown Union Rescue Mission. There, the Bruins would wash down walls and windows, paint a mural, and help serve meals to hundreds at the skid row mission.
"This is an incredible experience for me, and obviously for these students," said Mrs. Block, an avid volunteer who has worked in the past for Habitat for Humanity, the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank and other organizations. "The fact that they were willing to crawl out of bed at 7 in the morning and get on these buses to go downtown to work at a homeless shelter says a lot about them and about UCLA as well."
The Blocks, together with UCLA Nursing School dean Courtney Lyder and 420 students, were warmly welcomed by the Union Rescue Mission's director Andy Bales, beaming and recording the event with his handheld video camera.
"It's an honor to have UCLA at the rescue mission," Bales told the group. "The City of Angels is the capital of homelessness. And we're doing our best to put an end to that. We appreciate your bringing your energy. I always say donors support us financially, staff work hard for us — but volunteers transform this place with love."
The chancellor and teams of students grabbed paintbrushes to brighten up a rooftop patio at the skid row mission. With a 360-degree view of downtown, it's a popular place where homeless children play and guests gather to relax.
While Block painted a bench, Sunny Brar, a student from Riverside, painted a picnic table with six of her classmates. Although the day's chores would take "just a few hours out of my life," she said, the experience would become "a part of my college memories. When people come here, they're in distress. What we're doing will help calm them down and give them serenity."
Housed in the mission is the UCLA Nursing Health Center, which began treating homeless adults at the shelter 26 years ago, Lyder said. Now it also serves children and the elderly. "It's one of the highlights of my deanship to be here today," Lyder told the students. "You'll make a difference today." Students working in the clinic were able to transform a long, white wall with a colorful mural.
Jennifer Miskabi, a freshman, said she started volunteer work in high school to burnish her college application. But now it's become a part of her life. "When I was looking for colleges," she said, "I wanted to find a place where I could continue my service." That's part of why she chose UCLA.
Student volunteers at the nearby Angelus Plaza Senior Activity Center got down in the dirt to plant hundreds of shrubs in the main promenade, a place where 1,300 seniors living in the center's subsidized housing gather.
But once the work was done, it was time to party. And students soon had many of the 100 seniors gathered for a weekly social on their feet dancing to disco music. Other students played pool with some residents.
Meanwhile, at the Santa Monica Pier, students were sanding down railings in preparation for painting. Farther out along the beach, throngs of students were painting lifeguard towers a shade of Bruin blue.
For alumnus Peter Strauss, this was his second year of working with students on Volunteer Day. "It's great to be able to be part of an initiative that will no doubt capture the imagination of the nation," said Strauss, who runs a nonprofit organization. "I'm proud to be part of UCLA and proud to be part of this."
On the south side of the pier, more than a dozen Bruins painted color into a new mural. Kevin Reed, UCLA's vice chancellor for legal affairs, helped guide student work and joined in the painting.
"Volunteer Day is such a phenomenal event, with thousands of people all participating on different pieces of a greater project," Reed said. "We can offer a lot of talent to a community that has a lot of needs. It's our obligation to bring that talent to the community."
Kyrie Bass, marketing manager for UCLA Transportation and former president of the Staff Assembly, oversaw several projects on and around the Santa Monica Pier.
"It's a taste of what it's like to give back and a great way to start the year," she said. "More than 100 students have worked on beautifying this historic pier. All the students have been so energetic."
At Monroe High School in the San Fernando Valley, Matthew Fisher, an assistant professor of English who specializes in medieval manuscripts, joined 25 task leaders who supervised more than 430 undergraduates.
"It's important for students to see faculty getting their hands dirty," said Fisher, who also volunteered last year. "This is the university doing the right thing by the city. It's an inspired idea to show freshmen that they've come to a university that believes in giving back to the community."
UCLA senior Ben Sangthongkum, who supervised a crew of 10 undergraduates touching up paint on the exterior of the school's gymnasium, said he felt lucky to have been assigned to the high school from which he graduated in 2007.
"There are a lot of great teachers at Monroe," said the sociology major and resident adviser in Rieber Hall. "I was blessed with the chance of finding myself here. It's a privilege to come back and give back."
Chris Rosas, the school's principal, surveyed the UCLA volunteers with visible pleasure as they weeded, installed plants, touched up paint and completed murals. Since the state's budget crisis, the school has lost the equivalent of one-and-a-half maintenance workers, he said.
"What's being done today would literally take us months and months to achieve because we just don't have the personnel and financial resources," Rosas said. While Volunteer Day efforts won't make up the difference, it at least got the school year off to a nice start, he said.
All these experiences, Block said as activities wound down for the day, are what define and differentiate a public university from a private one.
"This makes a strong statement about UCLA to students — that we consider volunteering a valuable part of their education," the chancellor said.
This story was updated from an earlier version.