Action day : how to develop a quality one-day project

March 24, 2015

The best way to explain a good one-day service effort is to start with the ways such efforts are criticized.

One-day projects are often seen as feel-good experiences that do little to effect real change. One-day projects are criticized for providing a fusillade of service designed more to look good for pictures than to help the community. One-day projects are criticized as ignoring evaluation, disregarding learning, and running roughshod over community relationships.

A glimpse into the development of an action day a weekly one-day event out of Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville provides a sound retort to the critics. The story shows how an idea built on relationships, learning, reciprocity, and continuity can lead to a high-quality, one-day project.

It starts with an idea. For instance, a student interested in women s issues wants to do a service project, but doesn t know where to go. The student suggests the idea to Suzanne Kutterer-Siburt, the director of the office of leadership development who organizes the campus s action days.

It is built on relationships. Suzanne has already established these relationships by regularly meeting with leaders of community organizations, taking the time to sit down and talk with them about what their organizations need and how students might be able to help. As a result, she knows that the Holy Angels Shelter, a shelter for homeless women in St. Louis, could use a day of student support, and she calls a contact there to suggest the idea. They discuss a possible service project and agree that it would be useful to the site.

It incorporates reflection. The relationship goes two ways students help the agency by providing services, and the agency helps the students by providing reflection. When the idea is suggested to her, a social worker at Holy Angels gets excited at the prospect of teaching about the issue. The social worker agrees that over lunch she will present an educational session to students, a practice that is common at the university s action day events.

Saturday comes and the action day goes off without a hitch. Sixty students gather on campus to go to the shelter, where they meet homeless residents and staff while providing much-needed fixing up. At lunch, they pause for reflection with the social worker.

And it continues beyond. Even after the day is over the connections with the community organization goes on. Suzanne remains in touch with the shelter, so that she can get their feedback on the project. Often community members will come onto campus later to speak to students in the leadership development program. In this instance, the social worker comes back to present a module on civic responsibility and citizenship.

Southern Illinois University s Action Days are built on strong relationships with the community. They turn to the community to identify needs and plan projects, build reflection into the project, and maintain the connection between campus and community beyond the duration of the project. While common criticisms of one-day events should be heeded, projects like the action days help prove the skeptics wrong.

From Service Matters 1998: Engaging Higher Education In the Renewal of America s Communities and American Democracy

Contact person: Suzanne Kutterer-Siburt,

Kimmel Leadership Center web site:

Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville - IL, Illinois
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