Vincentian Service Day returns to the outdoors


Leslie Williamson

DePaul students Lily Merryman, Andrea Watkins and Danesh Kumar get rid of weeds to get ready for planting at Ginkgo Community Gardens in Buena Park.

On Saturday, students, faculty and alumni were finally able to spend DePaul’s Vincentian Service Day out in the Chicago community.

Started in 1999, the university-wide event encourages students to give back to their community and spend time serving others.

Students gathered in the bleachers of the Sullivan Athletic Center bright and early Saturday morning to kick off the event.

“While service happens year-round, I think it is a time for us to come together and to culminate what DePaul is all about,” DePaul Provost Salma Ghanem said about the service day, meeting up to join a volunteer group herself.

This was the first in-person service day in two years after restrictions from the Covid-19 pandemic made the event online since 2020. Along with some virtual volunteer opportunities that were offered, most of the service work took place on-site at different community organizations.

However, on Friday, the Chicago Department of Public Health moved the city and Cook County from a “low” to a “medium” Covid-19 transmission risk level. CDPH officials are “strongly recommending” wearing a mask indoors, but there is currently no official mandate to do so.

In the midst of rising cases, the provost said, “We are following the guidelines by the CDC and the city of Chicago, and as a result of that, it was possible to have [the event] in person.”

The rest of the event’s kickoff featured a few students speaking on the importance of service, including remarks from two dressed as St. Vincent DePaul and St Louise de Marillac. Division of Mission and Ministry staff also led a short reflection and prayer, with speakers from multiple faiths.

President Esteban made an appearance at the kickoff to celebrate DePaul’s tradition of service.

“You are Vincentians in action,” he said. “And you’re doing the exact thing that St. Vincent and St. Louise were doing more than 400 years ago today.”

He thanked the division of mission and ministry for helping to organize the event, and thanked students for their patience in participating online for the past two years, including more than 200 alumni who were participating alongside current students and faculty.

“Just because you’ve graduated doesn’t mean you can’t participate in Vincentian Service Day,” he said.

The students then departed to one of the more than 26 service sites located across the whole city, including a soup kitchen, a program sending books to prisoners, a senior services center, and almost a dozen community gardens.

One group of students attended the Ginkgo Organic Gardens in Buena Park. The totally volunteer-run garden donates its organic produce to Vital Bridges, a food pantry in Edgewater that serves people with AIDS and HIV.

Johanna Leuks has been volunteering with Ginkgo Organic Gardens since 2008 and was leading the DePaul group that day.

“We love our partnership with DePaul,” Leuks said. “Everybody’s excited to be here and you just pound out so much work.”

Although the garden is a relatively small space, it grows 600 to 800 pounds of produce for Vital Bridges each year. The space has open volunteer hours where anyone can stop by to help, so it relies considerably on group work for bigger tasks and to help them keep up with the garden.

“On a normal volunteer day, we have two to four community volunteers come in,” Leuks said. “It’s a lot of work especially when summer starts.”

Today, the group’s job was to transform the space, still a bit lackluster from winter, to be ready for the start of summer planting. The students worked together to weed the garden beds and shovel dirt into wheelbarrows, then raking fresh soil across the top.

One volunteer at the garden, DePaul junior Lily Merryman, participated in the online service day in 2021. After writing letters to essential workers with her swim team, she wanted to participate again this year and signed up individually.

Lily Merryman (right) helps another DePaul student plant carrot seeds at Ginkgo Community Gardens. (Leslie Williamson)

“It’s much better being out in person,” Merryman said. “I enjoyed writing the letters and I know that the people appreciated them, but it’s not the same as being able to do stuff with your hands.”

After preparing the soil, Merryman and a few other students helped plant tiny carrot seeds into the empty plots. One of the garden’s main volunteers had grown the carrots herself at home and carefully prepared the new seeds to bring to Ginkgo.

“Today is amazing, I’ve met so many kind people,” said Cassidy Cabrera, another junior volunteering.

Cabrera was participating through the DePaul Community Service Association. She normally volunteers weekly mentoring refugee children, but today she picked the garden site to try something different.

“I am a very service-based individual,” Cabrera said. “A lot of people are struggling out there and it’s really important to be that person to aid them and make sure that they’re noticed and they’re helped, they’re wanted and listened to.”

After about three hours of service, students reconvened in the quad to celebrate their hard work with a barbeque and games.

“I just think everyone, at least one year while they’re at DePaul, should do service day,” Merryman added. “It’s good experience.”