“Be Brave, Be a Hero, Be a Volunteer”

At the Louisiana State University’s Center for Community Engagement, Learning, and Leadership, LSU constituents, including students, staff, faculty, and community partners, are recognized for their extraordinary commitment to service at its annual Happy Awards ceremony. Past and present student winners such as Grady Stewart (2017) and Elizabeth Sherman (2018) have embodied the university’s Commitment to Community with their exemplary service to the local community. Students receive this pledge as freshmen and during campus-community engagement activities. It reminds students to, among other things, “contribute positively to the life of campus and surrounding community.”

Stewart, a senior mass communication major, first realized the power of volunteerism at eight years old when Hurricane Katrina’s surging tides overpowered the levees and flooded his family home. The New Orleans native’s life was “permanently changed,” not only by the loss of his belongings, but also by the volunteers’ kindness and willingness to help.

“I learned that good friends are worth far more than any trinket, toy or knick knack,” he said. “I realized that I [too] could make a difference; I could help people see the light behind the storm clouds and that a community can survive anything together.”

Years after Hurricane Katrina, Stewart would survive the Great Flood of August 2016, another harrowing natural disaster that deluged parts of Louisiana metro areas with water. While enrolled in Dr. Laurie Drummond’s ENGL 2000: Animal Welfare service-learning course, Stewart served and helped to save Baton Rouge’s animals—one of the community’s most vulnerable populations—at Companion Animal Alliance (CAA).

After witnessing firsthand how “hard-working and incredible” CAA’s staff and volunteers were, Stewart exceeded his required volunteer hours within the semester’s first four weeks.

 “It would have been easy to think of the requirement as an assignment or a chore,” he said. “But instead, I saw it as a duty. I enjoyed helping; I wanted to change the lives of the animals there.”

Stewart’s desire to help extended further than caring for only the animals; he used his own resources to finish several piles of laundry for flood victims at his home. This natural extension of his duty taught him many lessons, chief among them that everyone “has a role to play and responsibility to be kind to people and animals around us.”

Elizabeth Sherman, biological sciences major, embraced her role in the community by affecting change in the lives of Baton Rouge children. In 2012, she co-founded 4thekids Baton Rouge, Inc., a teen-run nonprofit charity, to support the construction of a free-standing Our Lady of the Lake Children’s Hospital and promote teen involvement in the community.

“Being surrounded by friends my age sent off for long term medical care and losing the [physical show of] support of friends and family was not right,” Sherman said. “I wanted to be part of the journey to give them a medical home here in Baton Rouge.”

That journey started by selling t-shirts to local schools with hopes of spreading the word about their mission, which raised $1000 in their first year After six years, 4thKids has donated over $100,000 to Our Lady of The Lake and has expanded to include a two running boards: a Junior Board of Directors of high school students and a Board of Directors of college students.

“I never dreamed of the doors [that have been] opened for 4theKids,” said Sherman, a graduating senior. “There are so many wonderful people in our community willing to support and give back to the community in different ways.”

Sherman, who also has served as the charity’s president, said that volunteering at a young age shaped her into a leader with the “drive to do more to support others in their endeavors.” While enrolled in English instructor Sharon Williams Andrews service-learning courses, she managed a student group that produced a resident profile for use in the Connections for Life Newsletter, as well as an info card promoting the agency’s mission of serving local indigent women.

“We are all here to serve a common good,” she said. “It brings me so much joy to give back.”

Stewart and Sherman both have a history of leveraging their service efforts toward broader impacts. This month, Stewart will serve as the regional coordinator for LSU’s Geaux Big Baton Rouge, which has united LSU students and the surrounding community in a large, one-day service experience. These volunteer efforts have focused on community needs identified by Baton Rouge residents and organizations within the following areas: Old South Baton Rouge, Mid-City, and North Baton Rouge.

“What I love about volunteering is that it inspires greatness, [promotes] positive change and gives the world gifts that will last well after I’m gone,” he said. “When people volunteer, they choose not only their own fate, but the fate of their community.”

For Stewart, who was diagnosed with Ulcerative Colitis and Crohn’s in his freshman year, volunteering has motivated him to use his personal talents and skills to help others, and has established and reinforced his connections to people within the community. These connections helped him to share his story with others, and created a passion for advocacy and mentoring.

“I learned that my illness couldn’t stop me from achieving my goals,” Stewart said. “I showed myself how strong I am by rejecting the limitations of my disease. I grew my community of young adults with Ulcerative Colitis and Crohn’s and [because of that] I felt less alone.”

Stewart, whose palpable vigor for life has sent him hang gliding in the French Alps, compared volunteering to an adventure in one’s own backyard. He offered some advice for anyone who might be reluctant to venture in to their community.

 “Be brave, be a hero, be a volunteer.”