It wasn’t until I started volunteering at the Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter in February of my freshman year that I truly began to think of Waterville as my home. Arriving at Colby College in 2014, it was all too easy to resign myself to the confines of the “Colby bubble,” where I thought everything I needed existed in the few acres between Washington Street and Mayflower Hill Drive. I realized how wrong I was after my first early-morning shift making breakfast at the homeless shelter.

Hastily scrambling eggs and brewing coffee before the 7 a.m. torrent of hungry guests gave me a sense of purpose, but it was getting to sit down and eat my eggs with everyone afterwards that grounded me, and made me feel part of something bigger: a community. From veterans to single mothers, retired teachers to retired taxi drivers, 5-year-olds to 75-year-olds, the exchange of eclectic stories over Friday morning breakfast quickly became the greatest part of my week.

Working at the Colby Volunteer Center for the last three-and-a-half years, my co-directors and I have had a bird’s-eye perspective of community service in Waterville. Last semester we watched as well over 300 Colby-student volunteers logged more than 1,300 hours in the community, some of whom worked each week at the same location, while others committed a Saturday in October to our annual Halloween Extravaganza.

The Halloween Extravaganza is our opportunity to invite Waterville children and their families to campus to partake in spooky festivities together, and it’s clear immediately upon entering Cotter Union how much Colby students love it. Treading gingerly through the makeshift haunted house, local kids are guided by costumed Alpine ski team members who show up year after year to host the most raved-about activity of the day. In the Spa, the Colby Alliance for Renewable Energy organizes an “environmental ring toss” while Student Health on Campus offers a trail mix station, and outside, a group of freshmen facilitates festive lawn games.

What makes the day so special is that not only are Colby kids able to forge relationships with local families, but we build these connections collectively as a student body. It is undeniably powerful to share the single goal of making this campus more permeable and accessible to our greater community.

With the construction of our dorm on Main Street and the onset of new civic engagement initiatives, this year marks an important turning point in the relationship between the college and greater Waterville. To maintain this momentum, we’ve made our annual event in the spring, Colby Cares Day, bigger than ever.

This year, on Saturday, April 21, we will send several hundred students off the Hill and into the greater Waterville area to volunteer at about 20 local sites, assisting with spring cleaning and other tasks. We will then invite the whole community to a celebration following our morning of service.

Please join us at Couture Field from 12 to 2 p.m. on Saturday, where we will have free activities and meals for children as well as small samples from local vendors for all. We would love to meet you.

There’s a framed poster that has always hung in the Colby Volunteer Center. It lists guidelines on “How to Build Community.” While no one knows how we acquired this poster or why it was hung, I believe it tells the story of our enduring mission. The wisdom outlined in the poster runs the gamut from “Help a lost dog” to “Start a tradition,” but what really stands out to me is the last part: “Know that no one is silent though many are not heard. Work to change this.”

Too often volunteerism gets wrapped up in the binary of the fortunate imposing themselves upon the less fortunate. It gets reduced to manpower, working to clean or build or feed or teach. I like to think that this poster, looming in the background of our weekly meetings, serves as a reminder that our jobs are more deliberate than just heedless giving in the name of altruism. As active and capable members of the Waterville community, Colby volunteers have the greater duty of hearing people — of acknowledging the patchwork of stories that compose this small town so as to better know our neighbors. It’s having gotten to know our neighbors over breakfast, or through a quick laugh after a haunted house tour, or through the hundreds of stories reported back to us by our volunteers that makes this job so worthwhile. It is listening to — and hearing — our neighbors, that truly makes Waterville home.

Sarah Neal is a senior at Colby College, majoring in English and French with a concentration in creative writing. After graduating in May, the San Francisco native is headed to get her master’s degree at Georgetown University.

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