Six hundred and fifty volunteers braved the nasty weather last weekend to lend a hand during the University of Central Arkansas’ sixth annual Big Event community clean up March 9.

Lesley Graybeal, director of service-learning in the Division of Outreach and Community Engagement at UCA, told the Log Cabin Democrat on Thursday that 2019 was the first year they opened up the event to anyone who would like to volunteer.

“Since we know that we have many neighbors in Conway who also want to have the opportunity to participate in a big day of service,” she acknowledged. “That's actually a really incredible number, given the terrible weather forecast.”

UCA President Houston Davis even made note of that astonishment, taking to Facebook at 2:50 p.m. that same day to brag on the group.

“Once again, our UCA students pulled off a very successful Big Event,” he shared. “Hundreds of volunteers out in the community on dozens of job sites. Makes me proud to see these young women and men actively engaged in their community.”

Graybeal said they have about 950 volunteers altogether and were “super impressed” and excited to have such a large group come out on such a bad weather day.

“We felt lucky to have enough indoor projects to accommodate them all,” she said. “We had groups finish up early and come back to campus so that they could be sent out to do more volunteer work. We love our UCA students'[s] passion and heart for service.”

The organized clean-up day — which originated at Texas A&M University in 1982 but has spread to other colleges across the U.S. — allows students, faculty and staff to get together and work to give back to the area they live in through volunteer work.

For those in the community who want to receive the help, a form must be filled out in advance — Graybeal said it was open for about two months — so the organization and the student committees have time to contact each person or group that made a request, visit the job site and prepare the needed amount of volunteers for that location.

“We received about 110 requests this year and we ended up doing about 40 jobs — all the indoor ones — because of the severe thunderstorms,” she said. “When we realized it was going to be 100 [percent] chance of thunderstorms, we decided to reach out to all of the people who requested jobs and find out if there was something indoors that we could do for them — if what they had requested was outdoors.”

Overall, the director said they were able to accommodate a lot more people than they would have otherwise, by checking in and asking folks to provide a rain plan if possible.

“Ordinarily, we do all of our jobs, rain or shine, but because of safety concerns of being out in the severe weather, this is the first year we have ever cancelled jobs because of weather,” Graybeal said.

Regarding past years, she said the teams have done all kinds of jobs from washing buses to painting walls, to cleaning and organizing storage sheds, raking leaves and fixing up playgrounds.

“The student committee likes to brag that they once washed a cat,” Graybeal proclaimed.

This year, one of the sites worked was the Go Store where volunteers organized clothing donations and other items.

“We had about 40 students and faculty come out to help and had a great time,” Go Store Owner Erica Cason told the Log Cabin Democrat. “They helped us with everything from pricing new inventory to cleaning up the store to putting up new shelving in the back. “

She said the group was there from 9 a.m. to noon.

“We reached out to them for help with our 12,000 [square-foot nonprofit] because we run primarily only on volunteer fuel with very, very few employees and tons of volunteer hours,” Cason said. “If we did not have volunteer help, we would not exist, so, we are extremely thankful for their time and energy.”

Graybeal said one of the parts of being an organizer is she doesn’t get to actually go out and serve on the job sites.

“The best part for me is seeing the students come back to campus after completing a job and hearing their stories of how much fun they had and how kind and thoughtful the people that they served were [,] knowing that they made a new connection in the Conway community,” she said.

Another favorite moment for her this year was getting up on stage in the Farris Center to greet students at kickoff and seeing a room full of hundreds of students who all came out in the pouring rain at 8 a.m. to serve.

“It is such an amazing feeling to know that that many people have chosen to serve when they could have stayed warm and dry at home,” Graybeal said. “I am truly blown away by our students'[s] character and integrity in showing up to serve.

This was student director Bethany Haney’s third year to be involved with the Big Event; she was on committee her freshman and sophomore year and served as the director her junior year.

“I think the most impactful thing for me with the Big Event would have to be seeing UCA student[s] come together for a greater cause,” she said. “It is amazing to see the impact something so small could have on someone’s life and to know my fellow peers and I are able to complete something for someone so selflessly, is amazing.”

Haney said at the end of the day, when it’s all over and they finally get to say they accomplished something bigger and better than the year before ... she loves seeing everyone and hearing what they did to make that happen.

She said often times, being a college student, they can get wrapped up in school work and friends and miss out on the joy of doing something for someone else.

“Events [like] the Big Event are important for college students to realize that they can make an impact in someone's life,” Haney said. “[They] get the opportunity to serve Conway, get to know people better in their organizations, but also get to know others in different organizations.”

At the end of the day, despite the weather not fully wanting to cooperate, Haney said it was still nice to know they were able to give back to Conway.