DECATUR — Millikin University volunteers seemed happy to be getting their hands dirty Saturday morning. More than 550 members of the university community pitched in as part of the United Way of Decatur and Mid-Illinois’ Day of Action volunteer event, helping out at sites all over town.
One bustling location was a formerly vacant lot at South Fairview Avenue and West Wood Street, which now hosts an educational garden that will be part of a collaborative learning environment between Dennis School and the university.
“I didn’t expect this kind of turnout or participation,” said Al Dillow, Millikin’s maintenance manager, as he watched the group work. “It’s kind of reassuring to see such community involvement and working together.”
Dillow said he helped to provide guidance and assemble some of the tools and materials that were needed for the project.
A good number of the university’s volunteers Saturday were first-year and transfer students, and they were joined by faculty and staff, Dennis School parents and students and other members of the community.
Millikin President Harold Jeffcoat and Barry Pearson, vice president of academic affairs, said they enjoyed seeing the students taking ownership in the gardening project. The men smiled and helped out as things took shape.
“These beds were not here when we started this morning,” Pearson said, gesturing to several raised beds built by volunteers.
Brian and Mary Abbott, who have children in the third, fourth, fifth and sixth grades at Dennis, stopped by to help out at the lot.
“I think it’s always important for parents to be involved in what their children are doing,” Brian Abbott said, adding that he expects that the collaboration between Millikin and the school will be beneficial to all involved.
The couple helped assemble the raised beds, where the children will watch the fruits of their labor grow and learn about science, cooperation and other important lessons.
“We’re big gardeners ourselves,” said Mary Abbott, adding that their children will be able to share what they already know about gardening.
The family said they’d like to see other empty lots around town get similar transformations to help bring neighborhoods together.
“We’ll frequently come up here with the kids,” said Mary Abbott. “They can show us what’s going on.”
Madison Kauffman, who volunteers as a mentor for first-year students, said she enjoys helping the new college students find their place in the community.
“When I was a freshman, my mentor was really an inspiration to me, so I really wanted to be a role model, a leader on campus,” said Kauffman, a junior musical theatre major.
Kauffman said she never had a garden as a child, and she is excited about seeing the project grow.
“I think it’s just really cool,” she said.
Anna Moritz and Michael Ohm, first-year students from Hawaii and Indiana, respectively, said they were happy to lend a hand with the project.
“My high school required service hours, so it was something I was expecting,” Moritz said of volunteerism and community involvement.
Beth Evans, the university’s director of student programs, said the garden project and other efforts throughout the community were important experiences for all involved.
“I think that that’s what’s cool about today. It’s coming together, defining our legacy together,” she said, adding that the efforts of the groups will inspire and benefit generations to come.
Judy Parrish, chair of the university’s biology department, said the garden will be an important teaching tool.
“I think any time people see where their food is coming from, it’s good,” she said.
Young children and college students alike can benefit from seeing where their food comes from, learning how it’s grown and participating in the process, she said.
“I think there’s a lot of wonder in planting a seed and seeing what comes of it, faith involved in planting a seed.”