County filled with random acts of volunteering this weekend

LAWRENCEVILLE - The county's biggest volunteer initiative, Gwinnett Great Days of Service, kicked off Friday morning. Volunteers worked at the J.M. Tull YMCA, Radloff Middle School and the Salvation Army, among many other locations.

Fresh mulch was evenly spread on the ropes course behind the J.M. Tull YMCA off Sugarloaf Parkway by 20 volunteers from Ricoh Corp. during the afternoon. Various activity groups are held on the ropes course and Teresa Welborn, director of financial and volunteer development, wanted to make sure the course remained beautiful but above all safe.

"Today they are spreading mulch on the ropes course to make more padding - making it a pleasant, clean environment," Welborn said. Many corporations host events on the ropes course to build inter-office rapport. Schools and children's clubs also use the ropes course to foster peer bonding in nature and to provide a physical challenge.

"I think the (volunteer) work is good for the camaraderie of the employees," said Dan Welgross, a sales representative at Ricoh. "It's great to give back to the community and at the end of the day we're a part of something bigger than ourselves and bigger than Ricoh."

Many of the Ricoh volunteers had been a part of Great Days of Service before and plan on returning next year.

Students, the majority from Maxwell High School, helped sort through hurricane relief donation items at the Salvation Army off Sugarloaf Parkway.

"We have two large 10-by-24 sheds, and within two hours the group completely pulled everything out and reorganized the shed," said Michelle Wilson, director of core operations for Gwinnett County Salvation Army. "I'm excited to be involved; it's pretty incredible."

An assembly line was formed beginning from deep within one of the long, orange sheds and ending a few feet away from the shed on the pavement. Students and teachers rhythmically tossed each other relief items. They trailed down the line to the last person who sorted the items into various piles on the pavement. Once organized, they were repacked in the shed.

"I think everybody should try (volunteering)," said Biban Thomas, an 18-year-old Maxwell High School student. "It's an extended hand to the community," he added.

Down the road in Duluth, volunteers banded together outside Radloff Middle School to lay mulch and cultivate an area for an outdoor classroom. Spaced-out trees with low-hanging branches laden with tiny red berries dotted the area, and nestled in the very center holding a pitchfork was Louise Radloff, a Board of Education member who the school was named after. Radloff, a Norcross resident, became involved with the school system when it was "very rural" and has seen it progress to an excellent school district, she said.

"Since the school is named after me, I feel it's appropriate for me to be over here working," Radloff said, leaning on a pitchfork. A blanket of freshly laid mulch surrounded her.

Lowe's and other companies are teaming together to place picnic tables for the children so they can study natural science courses outside in the spring.

"Kids and administration wanted to make this a picnic area," Radloff said. "There are lots of critters and leaves. They can look at the process, see how nature works and learn something."

Special education clients from Hi-Hope, a facility that offers comprehensive services to adults with developmental disabilities, teamed up with volunteers from Gwinnett Technical College to make the dream a reality.

"It's great having (volunteers from Hi-Hope) here," Radloff said. "They're so excited you would think they were doing the job of a CEO."

Throughout the school, other service projects were completed ranging from creating bilingual posters to mentoring children involved with various school projects in the library.

Sitting in tiny chairs built for children at Jackson Elementary School late in the afternoon Friday, Great Days organizer Rachael Holder and event founder Paige Havens expressed their relief that the volunteer goals were met and in some cases exceeded.

"We were worried because of all the hurricanes. We were scared agencies would be tapped out and that they wouldn't want to do a project, but it went the total opposite," Holder said. "We filled every project we had, and in the past we had to hunt down volunteers at the end. This year it was not the case."

Last year, 71 schools participated in drives, but this year many schools bowed out and requested to be a part of drives later in November, Holder said.

One special aspect of Great Days is that it connects volunteers with service projects they may be unaware of.

"For some volunteerism is a way of life, and they seek it out," Havens said. "And for some they need it to be brought to them."

Saturday will bring a close to the 2005 Great Days of Service, but Havens and Holder said items are still needed after this weekend.

"We're worried there won't be enough food or money for children this Christmas," Havens said. "There are so many disasters going on (all over the world), but we have to take care of the home front and do above and beyond what we normally do, not in lieu of. There are people still cold and hungry."