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A day’s work

Planting marigolds. Painting murals. Swabbing floors. Every May, Yalies donate their sweat equity.

I was on my knees on the sidewalk in front of a New Haven nursing facility, planting pink flowering vinca seedlings as fast as I could plant. I’m not very good at gardening. My lower back ached. We still had an hour and a half to go. Then the rain started: a purposeful, energetic rain that obviously planned to last several hours.

We kept planting. It was the Day of Service.

You don’t give up and go inside for a cup of coffee when you’re a volunteer, not when the flowers have to be rooted and thriving within two weeks. We were at the Leeway Nursing Home for people with HIV/AIDS. We’d had the tour—both sobering and cheering—and now we were delivering on our promise to be of use. The vincas were a small fraction of a new memorial garden soon to be dedicated to the late Leeway founder, Catherine Kennedy ’86MBA. Executive Director Heather Aaron ’85MPH had already planted much of it with her own hands, during her rare free time. We were there to make her load a fraction lighter.

This year was the tenth anniversary of the Yale Day of Service. The event was conceived, and a Connecticut pilot launched, in 2008 by staff, board, and advisers of the Association of Yale Alumni. It has been shepherded since by AYA associate director Alisa Masterson. She advises the alumni who serve as regional directors—some 30 in all, including in regions around the world. (Interested? Canada and Latin America are open.) She’s seen alumni launch inspired ideas such as teaming with high schoolers to make care packages for homeless women. And once Yale helps alumni with their personal causes, says Masterson, the alumni often find they’ve grown closer to Yale.

This year's volunteer cochairs were Mathew Meade ’87 and Elvira Duran ’05. Sheryl Carter Negash ’82 and C’Ardiss Gardner Gleser ’08, past cochairs, consider the event “one of the most valuable programs that our university offers.” AYA executive director Weili Cheng ’77 sees in the participating alumni a “generosity of spirit and determination to make a lasting impact for the greater good.”

 

This year there were 260 Day of Service sites in 20 countries and 47 US states. But the number of participants is still small, about 3,500.

To all of you who haven’t yet taken part: it’s worth it. I was a dedicated nonparticipant myself for nine years, pleading deadlines, family, other volunteer work. When I finally showed up, I met several friendly fellow Yalies and learned about a stellar community institution that was new to me.

The day also realigned my perspective. Planting flowers is light duty—but I normally work comfortably at a desk. An hour and a half gardening in the rain served as an extended, muddy meditation on the fact that for most people in the world, an office is a luxury. A few hours at an HIV/AIDS residence reminded me that being healthy enough to plant flowers is an immeasurable blessing.

So take part. Donate a little of your time; help your fellow humans. But also, do it for your own sake.

This article has been corrected to include the names of this year's cochairs.

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