KEARNEY – University of Nebraska at Kearney students weren’t going to let the weather spoil their weekend plans.
After COVID-19 canceled The Big Event in 2020, they were determined to bring back the annual community service project, even if it meant working in the rain and cold.
“This is something our students and the community look forward to every year,” said student coordinator Ashly Helfrich, a senior from Bennington. “It was really great to see that excitement again.”
The largest single-day service project at UNK, The Big Event is organized each year by UNK Student Government as a way to give back to the community and say thanks for all the support Kearney-area residents provide.
Following a one-year hiatus, the event made its return Saturday, when roughly 600 students spread out across more than 50 locations to tackle jobs ranging from spring cleaning and litter cleanup to yardwork and construction. They built a shed, moved furniture, created goody bags for teachers and sorted thrift store donations while assisting local churches, schools, nonprofit organizations, care facilities and individual residents.
“The Big Event really shows what UNK is all about,” said sophomore Tristan Larson of Trumbull, the current student body vice president. “We’re a hardworking group and we have a lot to give to the community. Kearney gives a lot to us, so it’s really important to get off campus and give back to Kearney.”
Larson and 13 other members of the Alpha Phi sorority spent part of their morning painting an activity room for The Arc of Buffalo County, a nonprofit that serves children and adults with developmental disabilities.
Across town, about 40 members of the Alpha Omicron Pi sorority were sprucing up the Buffalo County Historical Society Trails and Rails Museum by raking leaves, pulling weeds and scraping paint off buildings.
UNK senior Abigail Borgman of Bladen works as a tour guide at the museum, so she knows how beneficial it is to have some extra hands.
“We have a pretty small team, and this is a lot of work,” Borgman said. “To get this much manpower definitely helps a lot, especially with these outside projects. That’s one of the hardest things to find volunteers for.”
Although the conditions weren’t ideal as a chilly rain fell, Borgman and her sorority sisters still enjoyed the time together.
“We get to hang out while making an impact in the community,” she said.
Gene Hunt, superintendent of Fort Kearny State Historical Park and Recreation Area, understands that impact as well as anyone. He’s been signing up for The Big Event since it started at UNK in 2006.
“It’s fantastic,” said Hunt, who can rattle off a number of projects completed by UNK students at state recreation and wildlife management areas.
He planned to have Saturday’s group work on landscaping and scrape and repaint picnic tables, until the snow and rain came. Instead, they cleaned and polished display cases in the visitor center’s artifacts room.
About a dozen job sites were canceled entirely because of the weather, but Helfrich hopes to find student groups to complete those projects at a later date.
The former secretary of community relations for UNK Student Government spent her Saturday in a behind-the-scenes role, ensuring her final Big Event went as smoothly as possible.
“It’s been a really good experience planning everything,” Helfrich said. “It’s shown me how much the campus really benefits from the community, and vice versa. For students, it’s just a chunk of their day, but it means a lot to the people they’re going to help.”