Dragon Volunteers Program Opening Doors to Community Service
Karen Sams was up early on a mid-January morning, well before the sun rose, getting breakfast ready. Instead of scrambling eggs and fixing a meal for herself, though, she was in an assembly line at MANNA, a Center City nonprofit that prepares three square meals each day for Philadelphians at nutritional risk. Sams, the executive assistant to the dean in Drexel University’s Pennoni Honors College, was volunteering for the first time in the organization’s fast-paced kitchen — and she was doing it on company time.
Drexel launched the Dragon Volunteers program last December, opening up 16 hours of paid time each year for staff and faculty to serve the community. As part of the University’s push toward civic engagement, the program is a direct commitment of resources and a way to connect members of the Drexel community to their neighbors, with institutional support as motivation.
If early returns are any indication, it’s working. The list of organizations partnering with Drexel on the initiative is already growing. And Sams is one of several individuals and groups who have already taken advantage of the new policy and returned to campus feeling inspired and energized.
“I like to give back, but sometimes finding the time and energy on the weekends is tough,” said Sams. “I really appreciate that the University now recognizes the need for staff and faculty to be more civically engaged in the community where most of us spend five days a week.”
Sams said she likely would not have gone to MANNA without the University’s backing, but now that she’s dipped her toes in the water of volunteering, she’s ready to dive in. It felt good to help people get full, healthy meals, and even better to know that Drexel helped make it happen, she said. The program is just what she needed to simplify the volunteer process and get out into the community. She expects to go back every few months, maybe even in her free time once she exhausts the 16 hours available through Dragon Volunteers.
“I’m not particular about where I volunteer or what someone has me doing,” said Sams. “I just want to walk away knowing I’ve helped at least one person.”
That’s the spirit Janeile Johnson wants to see spread across the University. As the assistant director for strategic initiatives in the Lindy Center for Civic Engagement, she’s the coordinator of Dragon Volunteers, playing matchmaker between staff and faculty and the organizations and institutions that need their help.
“President Fry says Drexel is committed to becoming the most civically engaged university in the nation. We’ve been taking that message to heart,” said Johnson. “We believe it’s really important to include employees in the conversation.”
In a city full of organizations serving the community’s various needs, there is no shortage of opportunities for Drexel to lend its resources. Employees can stay on campus by pitching in at the Dornsife Center for Neighborhood Partnerships, either at a monthly community dinner or at one of Our Closet’s pop-up shops, which provide clothing to vulnerable Philadelphians. The list of community partners where Dragons can seek out volunteer opportunities includes MANNA, the Broad Street Ministry, Philabundance, Habitat for Humanity, Philly AIDS Thrift, the Salvation Army Learning Zone, Chosen 300 and the Nationalities Service Center, among others. Johnson is working to add more local partners in the Powelton and Mantua neighborhoods surrounding Drexel’s campus, such as Neighborhood Bike Works. The early response to the program has been encouraging, she said.
“Because of all the help and support, a lot of employees feel like they can actually take advantage of this policy, participate in this program and really make a difference in the community,” said Johnson, “and that’s what we’re really about.”
All Drexel employees need to do to get involved is sign up for a volunteer opportunity through Career Pathways and secure supervisor approval. Then it’s time to get to work.
For Rachel Callahan and Megan Strouss-Rooney, co-op coordinators in the Steinbright Career Development Center, that meant organizing a department trip to Cradles to Crayons in Conshohocken, an organization that provides children in homeless or low-income situations the books, clothes and other items they need. The Steinbright team put together an internal collection drive, packed up a few carloads of donations and showed up for an afternoon shift with 13 Drexel employees ready to work. It was the Friday after Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and the warehouse was “packed to the rafters” with donations that needed sorting after recent collections, Strouss-Rooney said.
Steinbright organized a similar volunteer day at Cradles to Crayons last year, spurred by the relationship they share through Drexel’s co-op system, which has placed students at the organization in the past. The University’s new initiative made a second trip an easy choice.
“When the Dragon Volunteers program was announced, our staff and leadership saw it as a great opportunity to increase the visibility for us and for Cradles to Crayons — to make it a more official part of something we’re doing and something Drexel supports in the community,” said Callahan. “It was good intentions and good timing all coming together to help a really great cause.”
Strouss-Rooney said the program is recognition of the value of giving back to the community and a useful tool for coordinating the volunteer efforts that departments across the University were already making. For the Steinbright group, which has also been volunteering at Philabundance for several years, receiving Drexel’s support has been encouraging.
“It’s both a morale builder and a team builder because you’re getting to work alongside folks in a very different capacity,” said Strouss-Rooney. “And it serves as a reminder that we are tied to this strategic mission.”
Just a few days after Dragon Volunteers launched, Gina Kerwin and her colleagues in the Office of Institutional Advancement were already getting involved. The group had been discussing ways to volunteer, so the new program came at just the right time. Kerwin, the associate director for Presidential Advisory Councils, went to Dornsife’s community dinner a few weeks before Christmas, along with four of her co-workers. They helped prepare table settings, set up the food and coordinate the meal service, all for a hungry crowd awaiting a holiday dinner.
Kerwin said she would take advantage of the full 16 hours allotted to employees, likely with some of her colleagues. The Dornsife dinner was just the first step.
“People are more motivated to do their part now that they know the University encourages them to actively go out and find opportunities they wouldn’t get to do because they would be working,” said Kerwin. “You’re going to do things you wouldn’t normally do. Hopefully that helps serve the community in a way it wasn’t getting served before.”
Johnson said she has heard from other departments around campus that have groups ready to take advantage of Dragon Volunteers. The strong early support from supervisors and department heads has given the program momentum. Johnson anticipates expansion of the initiative to include alumni and friends of the University who are interested in finding new volunteer opportunities. It’s all part of setting an example for civic engagement and bringing the entire Drexel community along for the ride.
“I believe that behavior should be modeled,” said Johnson. “So, if we’re doing it, then we can definitely encourage our students and say, ‘Did you do any community service yet? What are you doing to be a good citizen in your newfound Drexel community?’"
Interested in using your Civic Enaggement hours? Visit drexel.edu/dragonvolunteers for more information on our community partners and how to register.This article originally appeared in the spring issue of Drexel Quarterly.