This past Saturday I was a part of Be The Change Day – an annual event of volunteering, public service and engaging in one’s community that embodies the acts and values spread by Mahatma Gandhi, who devoted his life to helping others. Each year, hundreds of universities across the country participate and I got to be a part of UR’s most popular Be The Change Day event ever with about 300 other students.

Kickoff began at 10:30 a.m. in Douglass Dining Center with a complimentary bagel breakfast and two guest speakers. The entrance was pretty chaotic as students lined up both stairways from the first floor based on the first letter of their last names and got to pick a group to be in and get their free t-shirt with a Mahatma Gandhi quote reading “My life is my message…” Rochester Mayor Robert Duffy opened the event and said he was proud and honored that we were taking the time on a Saturday morning to help out the neighboring areas around our campus, instead of isolating ourselves from them. The second speaker, most befittingly, was Arun Gandhi, the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi himself, who spoke to us about the power of giving and reaching out to those in need; when he was at the podium, everyone was silent as he truly channeled his grandfather’s aura, showcasing his talent as an orator.

After the breakfast, we left in three shifts with two school buses each; our destination, only five minutes away across the Genesee, was Foodlink, a food bank agency that services 11 counties in the Rochester area and over 200 soup kitchens and shelters within that area.

Walking into the building was astounding because nobody could expect that a building that looked so old and worn down from the outside could make a difference in so many lives. Inside the facility, there were thousands upon thousands of boxes filled with food and products collected from numerous companies, which needed to be sorted and stacked.

We were divided into groups and spread throughout the facility to do a number of different jobs, from power washing barrels to sorting food to painting the dilapidated interior of the main building. My group and I worked dividing up boxes as part of the Gifts in Kind Program (formerly a part of the United Way Service Corps.) that recently became a part of Foodlink. Instead of donating food, other products, from cosmetics and toiletries to baby products and office supplies, are collected, separated and distributed to shelters in the area.

In my group’s workspace alone, we must have gone through about 175 boxes in the three hours that we worked with little breaks in between – weaving in and out of each other, emptying case after case was exhausting and, at the same time, gratifying. There were a few moments where I had to take a step back and admire the process and the progress; many groups kept throughout this large factory space, working together going through stacks of boxes – it really was incredible. Arun Gandhi and Mayor Duffy’s words during kickoff were inspiring and positive, but it wasn’t until I was amongst the chaos of sorting these products to benefit others that I could truly recognize how it all made me feel – like a whole person, taking the time to make a difference in many peoples’ lives. Being caught up in the college experience, working during the days and hanging out with friends at night and on the weekends, I forgot what it meant to give to others who need help, and this event helped me recall that.

After the three hours, we had an early dinner along the canal made by Freshwise Catering, a division of Foodlink. As the afternoon sun beamed down on us, we were all grateful when the food was served and we could relax – a hard day’s work for sure. Looking down the canal at the city’s skyline, I realized that the day was a success not only because of the number of boxes we unpacked and sorted and the other work we completed, but also because of how we all felt and how our work will help make others feel – the shelters will get packs with toothbrushes and toothpaste, food and clothing, and that could potentially make all the difference in the world for the people who need those things to live.

So, all in all, was the day worthwhile? I’d certainly say so. Frances Pesavento, one of the coordinators at Foodlink, informed us that the amount of work that we all did in just three hours totaled the work that one full-time staff member at Foodlink would do in a year. We spent the day helping others in need and at the same time got to hang with friends and make a difference. Next year when this event runs again, I implore you to sign up and do some good – because being the change really is rewarding, even if it’s only for a day.

Siegel is a member if the class of 2010.

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