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Friday, June 21, 2024
The Observer

Record number of students participate in annual Back the Bend community service day

This weekend, over 700 students from Notre Dame, Saint Mary’s and Holy Cross spent their Saturday morning volunteering at local South Bend organizations for the annual Back the Bend community service day.

Back the Bend is organized by Notre Dame student government and this year, they sent student volunteers to 19 community organizations including the Robinson Community Learning Center, the South Bend Bike Garage, the City of South Bend, Downtown South Bend, the Notre Dame Center for Civic Innovation and Unity Gardens.

This was Back the Bend’s twelfth year. It began in 2009 as “Communiversity Day,” but was canceled in 2020 and 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Because Back the Bend last took place in 2019, co-organizers outgoing student government director of community engagement and outreach Erica Maggelet and outgoing student government director of faith and service Mary Elizabeth Stern said they focused heavily on marketing and educating students about the event. 

Stern said a record number of volunteers participated this year.

“The record in the past 10 years has been like 600 volunteers, and this year, we broke that record by 100,” she said. “It is really incredible … we took a two-year hiatus because of COVID, and it was so wonderful to see the students so excited to get back engaged in the community and really reconnect with South Bend.”

Volunteers began their day at 9:30 a.m. at the Robinson Center where they enjoyed Einstein’s bagels and coffee before heading off to the various community organizations. Students returned to the Robinson Center just before 2 p.m. for free tacos from the Junbuggies food truck. 

Sara Stewart, the executive director and founder of Unity Gardens, said she greatly appreciated the volunteers’ help and enthusiasm. She described Unity Gardens as a “dignified free food model and edible park” where people of all socioeconomic backgrounds can pick fresh fruit and vegetables for free.

Tri-campus students help create mulch pathways at South Bend’s Unity Gardens to prevent the growth of weeds. Over 150 students volunteered at the garden as part of Saturday’s Back the Bend service day.

In addition to other projects, Saturday’s volunteers helped pave the garden’s accessible “wheelchair garden” pathway and created mulch pathways to prevent weed growth and frame the garden.

“They’ve changed winter to spring for us,” Stewart said. “Every year, it seems like there’s more work done and more efficiency.” 

She said over 150 Back the Bend volunteers helped out in the garden Saturday.

“We’ve never had this many people,” she said. “Every single person I met was super enthusiastic … they asked questions anytime they saw me. They’re wanting to know more about all this and how to stay involved.”

Stern and Maggelet spent Saturday visiting each of the different community sites — including Unity Gardens — and checking in with volunteers and the organizations’ leaders about the experience. Maggelet said many organizational leaders and community members echoed similar sentiments to Stewart.

“The community partners were really excited to have so many volunteers. A lot of them didn’t even put a cap on the amount of people they could have at their sites,” Maggelet said. “It was really fun to see the magnitude of this event and everyone working together.”

She said she also received positive feedback from students which felt really rewarding after planning Back the Bend for five months.

“I got a few emails … thanking us for planning the event saying that people made great friends and had fun at their sites,” she said.

Stern added she is excited to see the future of Back the Bend after witnessing how well the event “bounced back” after the pandemic.

“We didn’t know how students would react to it,” she said. “So seeing their enthusiasm for the day and their dedication to showing up and helping out was super, super inspiring.”