Big turnout for ‘Big Event’

UND volunteers ‘Do Work’ on biggest Saturday of spring semester

Alex Turner (front) and fellow brothers of Alpha Sigma Phi stroll to their downtown work site during Saturday’s Big Event. Students and volunteers mobilized to places across the community to help with spring cleanup. Photo by Connor Murphy/UND Today.

Standing in her yard, along University Avenue, Patsy Nies holds a rake in gloved hands.

It’s the time of year when Grand Forks residents, like Nies, assess the remains of colder seasons.

“It’s amazing what blows in over the winter,” she said, poking her rake at the ground.

Its metal tendrils get caught in leaves, twigs and dead grass. Nature’s litter is strewn about the property, just as it is across the rest of the community.

“Raking leaves is one thing,” she quipped. “It’s the scraping in the spring – my husband and I looked at each other after we finished last year and said, ‘Big Event – let’s do that next year.’”

Nies and her husband, Jerry, are among 185 households, nonprofits and community entities that submitted requests to UND’s Big Event – a student organization enlisting hundreds of volunteers each year to extend a helping hand with yard work and spring cleaning.

Since its start at UND in 2005, the Big Event remains an important connection between the University and Grand Forks residents. For 42 years, Nies worked in student affairs at UND. She knows how great students can be.

“It’s wonderful,” she said of the students, who volunteer on a Saturday, close to finals week, each year. “I loved the work I did with students, and it’s always neat kids who do something like this.”

Erin Jenkins (left), Emily Keller and their small group worked in yards along University Avenue on Saturday, connecting with residents and enjoying the spring weather. Photo by Connor Murphy/UND Today.

Good start

Erin Jenkins and Emily Keller are in Nies’ front yard, also with rakes in hand. They’re both juniors majoring in elementary education. It’s Keller’s first time volunteering in the Big Event. Jenkins, who volunteered the past two years, invited her while getting a new group together for 2019.

They’re almost finished clearing the berm of rubbish when they stop to talk about how they became involved. They plan on getting into the bushes along the house next, which harbor a bed of dead leaves. The Big Event is scheduled for four hours, but the two seem ready to work as long as it takes.

“I’ve had fun the past two years,” Jenkins said. “It’s a fun way to be outside and enjoy the weather. It feels like a good way to start your Saturday.”

The Big Event is a different way to connect to the community, Keller says. The two regularly work in classrooms around town, as teachers-in-training, but they also enjoy seeing other neighborhoods and helping those in need.

“It’s something to look forward to,” Jenkins said.

In addition to racking up some volunteer hours, Nies has some “goody bags” close by to reward their efforts.

“Talk about a win-win,” Nies said of the Big Event. “Once we get past the scraping, we’ll be in good shape.”

Every year, anywhere from 800-1,000 volunteers sign up for the Big Event. Last Saturday, they congregated outside the Wellness Center before getting to work – receiving a shirt, cleaning gear and some breakfast. Photo by Connor Murphy/UND Today.

Student to adviser

Kristi Okerlund was a student at UND when the Big Event first came to campus. Now the assistant director of student involvement & parent programs is an adviser to the student organization, which creates a 25-member committee each year to prepare for up to 1,000 students in need of specially designed shirts, cleaning gear and a kick-start breakfast – served outside the Wellness Center at 9 a.m.

Kristi Okerlund

Okerlund was at the impromptu help desk on the lawn, next to where volunteers signed in and received their emblematic “Do Work” shirts. She expanded the notion of community connections as she talked about the Big Event’s role at UND.

“Students work not only in the classroom, but a lot of times in the community as well,” she said. “Still, they might not have all that much time to volunteer. The Big Event can be a good break from studying at the end of the year, and it’s a great way to enjoy spring weather as April turns to May.”

In the fall of 2004, student leaders called a meeting to talk about what they had just heard from students at Texas A&M. Since 1982, their Big Event was a way of expressing their gratitude toward the surrounding community. UND students wanted to install something similar, and Okerlund was on the forefront.

“There was a thought that this wasn’t just something for Texas A&M,” Okerlund recalled. “The student body president and vice president, at the time, agreed.”

Knowledge of the Big Event grows every year, as do the positive interactions students have with the community, she says. As more “thank you” notes come in, it signifies a growing bond. Its reputation as an annual campus event maintains steady student interest, and it’s a good stress-reliever around the finals crunch.

Marcus Vivier (right) wanted to make sure his fraternity was active in the community. The Big Event is a fun way for the brothers to bond, build service hours and make a difference. Photo by Connor Murphy/UND Today.

Combined forces

Part of the Big Event committee’s task is to match volunteers with the hundreds of requests coming in. Students sign up in all sizes of groups, or individually, so part of the preparation is a spot of matchmaking.

Members of the newest fraternity on campus, Alpha Sigma Phi, ended up being a great match for the Downtown Development Association’s (DDA) Downtown Cleanup Day – an initiative that’s typically run during the summer months. Students downtown swept sidewalks, picked up trash and worked alongside business owners, employees and residents.

Executive Director of the DDA, Alexander “Blue” Weber, says it was a good chance to get students invested in the place they live, work and play.

“The big thing for us is that UND is part of our community – a good chunk of our population,” Weber said. “As we try to create retention with those students, we want them to feel like this is their own as well.”

That’s the feeling Marcus Vivier hoped to find when he came to Grand Forks. Recently featured in UND Today as a Leader in Action, Vivier helped found Alpha Sigma Phi and wanted to make sure they became a force for good.

“I didn’t want to be a fraternity where we just say we do things and not do them,” he said. “I wanted to connect more with Grand Forks, and doing stuff like this makes me feel better – knowing I can do something to make a difference.”

Like Vivier, Alex Turner, the fraternity chapter’s director of service and philanthropy, says the Big Event is a great way to bond as brothers and serve the community.

“We started doing it last year and really enjoyed it,” he said of the event. “It helps out the community, and it’s a good time, which flies when you’re working with friends. It’s fun and a different activity to be a part of.”