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UW-Eau Claire students giving back to hometowns during COVID-19

| Judy Berthiaume

When Marissa Gibbs learned that the brewery and distillery in her hometown would make hand sanitizer instead of spirits during the COVID-19 pandemic, the UW-Eau Claire senior knew she wanted to help support the business and the Chippewa Falls community.

So, for the last month, Gibbs has been volunteering at the Chippewa River Distillery and Brewster Bros. Brewing Co., helping to produce, package and distribute bottles of hand sanitizer to businesses, organizations and individuals in the Chippewa Falls area.

“The demand is so high during this pandemic, and hand sanitizer is extremely hard to find in the Chippewa Valley,” says Gibbs, a criminal justice major who has worked at the distillery for three years. “They are donating cases of their sanitizer to nonprofits, emergency services, and other organizations and businesses in the community.

“They needed a lot of volunteers to help to make this project happen. I love this business and everything they do for the community, so the answer was an obvious yes when they asked for volunteers.”

Just over an hour away, another Blugold, Sierra Dixon, also is helping to meet a COVID-19-related need in her hometown.

The freshman psychology major is making masks for a La Crosse daycare center that is open during the pandemic, as well as for community members in need of masks.

“The news about COVID-19 has been quite overwhelming for me,” Dixon says. “My mom saw this pattern for the masks in our newspaper. We both wanted to help our community, so we started sewing the masks. What was originally supposed to be a few masks for friends and family really took off.

“After the first few masks went well, we were able to get into a rhythm that allowed us to mass produce the masks. I wanted to expand the project and help a local business, so I made masks for the daycare.”

Gibbs and Dixon are among the many UW-Eau Claire students who are finding creative ways to support people and organizations in their local communities or in the Chippewa Valley as people everywhere are dealing with issues relating to COVID-19, says Benita Wagner, the university’s service-learning coordinator.

Since the pandemic moved classes online and sent many students home, Wagner has heard from Blugolds near and far who are doing everything from collecting and distributing necessities like toilet paper to those in need to volunteering in homeless shelters.

While Wagner is impressed with the students’ efforts, she is not at all surprised to see so many current students — as well as UW-Eau Claire alumni — stepping in to help during a crisis.

As the head of the university’s service-learning program, every day Wagner works with students who are giving back to the community in a variety of ways.

Each semester, Wagner’s office supports more than 500 UW-Eau Claire students as they find and complete projects to meet their 30 hours of service-learning that the university requires for them to graduate.

And every semester she watches as students go into a project planning to do just enough to check the requirement off their to-do list, and instead end up sticking with it long after they’ve finished their 30 hours or immediately begin looking for other ways to continue to provide service in the community.

“Often they just want to get the requirement fulfilled, but they quickly find more intrinsic value in the service they gave,” Wagner says. “Many students are surprised that the service they gave was needed and beneficial to the organization.

“This is truly what I love about service-learning — they get it!”

Gibbs was among those who will continue with her project as long as she’s needed.

“I completed the 30 hours within three days with how much work we are putting in to produce the sanitizer,” Gibbs says. “I will continue helping out with this project until we cease production.”

The Center for Service-Learning works with 500-600 students each semester to complete the requirement through a non-credit option, Wagner says. Students also have the option to complete service-learning through credit option, and around 1,000-1,200 students take this option each semester.

“However, due to the campus only holding online courses the rest of the semester, that has interrupted many service-learning projects through coursework,” Wagner says, noting the university did waive the 30-hour service requirement for seniors who were set to graduate in May but who had not yet completed their service-learning. “Almost all non-credit option service-learning projects also have been halted due to community partners having to shut their doors.”

With the pandemic keeping students away from campus, many Blugolds began contacting her about potential service projects they could do to help their hometown communities during this crisis, Wagner says, noting they also were confirming the projects would fulfill their university service-learning requirements.

Some of those students came to her with specific ideas for their service projects, and others reached out asking if Wagner knew of organizations in need of the kind of help that they could provide from a distance.

“All the organizations students are working with have strict policies to protect them and keep them safe,” Wagner says. “Some projects are independently done where students check in online with a supervisor periodically.

“For those asking what they can do, we are trying to give them ideas on what’s possible while remaining safe during the crisis.”

With many planned projects disrupted by COVID-19, Wagner reached out to community partners asking them to think “outside the box” and come up with virtual or online service-learning projects students could do to benefit their organizations.

The community partners responded, offering various project ideas that students can do from wherever they are sheltering during the crisis. While some requests included writing grants or doing research, others were more interactive, such as reading, tutoring or hanging out with kids virtually, she says.

“The sky’s the limit of what they can come up with,” Wagner says. “We all just have to get more creative. So, some community partners have stepped forward with some ideas and some students have come with their own.”

While there are many organizations in the Eau Claire area that regularly partner with UW-Eau Claire to provide students with service opportunities, her list of partners is growing now that thousands of students are back in their hometowns this semester, with many looking for ways to help people and organizations in need during the pandemic.

Through their service, students like Dixon and Gibbs are seeing their communities in new ways, Wagner says.

“This project has helped me to connect with my community and to help out a local, essential business during this pandemic,” Dixon says of making masks for the daycare and others in La Crosse. “This really is a difficult time for everyone, and I wanted to put my sewing skills to use to help.

“This project has really showed me what kind of an impact I can make and also the importance for community members to help out each other in a time like this.”

In Chippewa Falls, Gibbs was surprised to find there is such a huge need in the community for hand sanitizer.

Helping to meet those needs is rewarding, but the project also is giving her a better sense of the kinds of businesses that make up her hometown as well as an appreciation for how they are all coming together to support the community during such a difficult time, she says.

“Every day, a new person comes in and tells me what business they are from and how grateful they are that we are making and supplying this,” Gibbs says of the hand sanitizer. “I gained a true appreciation for how many workers are out there helping us in a time of struggle. “

These are exactly the kinds of revelations that she hopes students experience when they are involved in a service-learning project, whether it is during a pandemic or a more typical semester, Wagner says.

The goal, she says, is that Blugolds carry that spirit of service with them throughout their lives and give back to whatever community they call home in the future.

“Students can stay in their comfort zones, do their own thing and stay in their own social circles, but by doing this they miss seeing the actual needs in the community,” Wagner says. “The service-learning requirement moves students to a place of seeing real needs and taking action to bring better outcomes — and many times better livelihoods — to others in the community.”

Photo caption: Sierra Dixon is among the Blugolds who are giving back to their hometowns during the pandemic. She made and donated masks to a La Crosse daycare and to community members.