Cindy Mitchell crouched next to a newly built bench, eyeing the dusty level that sat on the wooden seat in front of her.
“That side needs a little more dirt,” she said to her coworkers, all of whom sported matching gray T-shirts with “Primerica” written in bold white letters on the front and “Volunteer” on the back.
As Robert Flynn and Bert Sandler shoveled soil back into one of the holes to even out its depth, Mitchell smiled, looking around at the men and women scattered throughout Summerour Middle School’s garden.
“One of the reasons we chose this (project) is because of the garden itself,” said Laura Gibbs, vice president of human resources for Primerica. “(Gardens) promote self-sufficiency, and that’s part of what Primerica believes in, as a company and also what our foundation does.”
On Friday and Saturday, Primerica employees — and thousands of others from across Gwinnett — took a break from their normal routines to help out at the more than 500 projects that made up this year’s Gwinnett Great Days of Service, the 19th annual event.
Started in 2000 by Paige Havens with 10 projects and 100 volunteers, the number of volunteers — and the number of residents benefited by Great Days projects — has grown exponentially, with more than a million participants volunteering over the last two decades, Havens said.
“This is a powerful way to get people out and active in the community and to find out where they can (help),” Havens said. “It’s not just about the two days; it is about connecting people to causes that matter to them and helping them find a way that they can give, not just today but throughout the whole year.”
While the projects vary — for example, Vickie Thomas, who works at Annandale Village, a nonprofit that aids adults with developmental disabilities and brain injuries, led a group of brain injury survivors in painting a building at the Southeastern Railroad Museum — Havens said many focus on combating food insecurity and other humanitarian issues in Gwinnett.
“We educate the community so richly on this day about food insecurity in (Gwinnett) and homelessness and how community gardens feed people in need,” Havens said. “It’s about community development and community building and helping everybody take some ownership of that.”
Part of that community building means promoting inclusiveness and embracing the people “who aren’t normally included,” like those with disabilities, Havens said.
Over at Duluth’s Southeastern Railroad Museum, Thomas echoed Havens, pointing at the men who were painting the museum’s education building.
“These are my brain injury survivors,” Thomas said. “We’re always looking for opportunities to give back to the community, so it’s been a great day. This is our first time doing Great Days of Service, but we’ve had people come out to Annandale for (Great Days) — one year they painted inside, and I think this year they were doing some of the landscaping. That’s the whole idea, especially with my survivors — it’s (giving back).”
Havens said creating a desire to give back is a key aspect of Gwinnett Great Days of Service, one organizers try to promote by including county schools in the projects.
“We have, I think, 110 schools involved,” Havens said. “That was a huge component a couple of years after starting Great Days of Service. What we realized was, we have the potential to build a culture here and to teach the next generation about service learning and the gratitude and the impact that they could have. We, as a community, own that next generation through this opportunity.”
In the nearly two decades that Great Days has been around, many former Gwinnett students have taken that concept of service learning to heart, Havens said.
“I look now and I see children who were in kindergarten when we start this in the schools who are now starting nonprofits,” she said. “It brings great joy to my heart to know that, and I don’t believe that was by accident.”