LSU students Geaux BIG for community service day

Royal Armelin thought he won the lottery when he learned about two weeks ago that LSU students would be dropping by his north Baton Rouge home Saturday to help with a lengthy list of home improvement projects.

The 69-year-old retired Air Force veteran who served in Vietnam and Grenada has trouble moving around due to a sciatic nerve flare-up in his left leg and other health conditions. So home improvement projects in the planning stages for about three years have been put off.

He said he jumped at the chance to get some help when he learned through the East Baton Rouge Council on Aging about Geaux BIG, a large-scale community outreach effort sponsored by LSU students and the university’s Campus Life Department.

Armelin said he never thought he would get selected but is grateful he was among those helped Saturday by an estimated 1,700 LSU students, as well as some LSU staff.

But when he got that fortuitous phone call from LSU two weeks ago informing him he had been selected, he knew his prayers had been answered.

“In the service, we used to do something similar to this, you know, helping the elderly, and I never thought...,” he said wistfully. “I mean, I could see the smiles on their face, I’d say, ‘That’s gratifying,’ and now to get that back in return, that’s truly a blessing.”

Armelin was among 71 individuals, schools and nonprofit groups selected to have students drop in to perform a variety of community, school and home improvement beautification projects.

Students from the Muslim Student Association painted Armelin’s shutters, the sides of his house and some of the rooms inside.

“I like volunteer work,” said Otham Almsquri, 19, a petroleum engineering major from Oman.

He said Muslims believe that doing good work for others brings happiness, so he tries to volunteer as much as he can. He said he’s often the first person in line to sign up.

Homeowners and nonprofit directors in East Baton Rouge Parish submitted applications in January requesting help for projects. Organizers visited each site to get an idea of what the students would need for the project and to check for any safety hazards. Four sites were not considered because of safety issues.

The LSU students met on the school’s Parade Grounds at 8:30 a.m. Saturday for an early morning pep talk from university President F. King Alexander before dividing into groups and heading off to their respective work sites. They returned to the grounds for bag lunches after completing their work.

This is Geaux BIG’s second year, following a successful debut last April that saw about 850 students volunteer at about 30 work sites.

By contrast, Texas A&M has sponsored a similar program since the early ’80s, and last year, they had about 19,000 students volunteer, said Margo Jolet, associate director for Campus Life.

“As good competitors, we want to beat that number,” she said.

A large contingent of students and university officials descended on the Family and Youth Service Center, commonly known as the Truancy Center, on Government Street to help center Director Roxson Welch with several beautification projects.

The center was one of 30 work sites last year, and once those students left, Welch began formulating plans for this year’s group of volunteers to work on. The plans included planting a citrus garden in the back of the complex, small fruit gardens in the front and walkways surrounded by other fruit trees and vines.

She said the students were able to get done in a half a day what would have taken the center many weeks or months to accomplish. She said she and one maintenance worker are the only people available to maintain the facility.

“Today, it’s going to come together in a day,” Welch said.

The aesthetic improvements are meant to make the center more inviting for people, Welch said. Students painted a tire swing, a wooden swing installed by Baton Rouge firefighters early Saturday and hung bird feeders from a tree.

One of the projects she had in mind was to have someone build an arbor over one of the walkways for muscadine vines to grow on, and she found just the person to build it in Alex Cagnola, 23, a senior biological engineering major from Lafayette.

“She gave us a picture and said go with it,” he said.

In the back, workers from Baton Rouge Green and City Citrus handed out gardening tips to students, including uber-volunteer Morgan Matchett, 21, director of Volunteer LSU.

She estimates she has volunteered at more than four dozen events like Geaux BIG and enjoys learning about various service organizations.

“I just really love being able to identify community needs and ignite that passion in students to fill those needs,” she said.

While Matchett learned gardening tips, Alexander, wearing his black dress shoes, grabbed a tiller and worked on a small quadrant of a large circular patch of land where the citrus trees were to be planted. It brought back memories of working on his grandparents’ farm in Kentucky as a youth.

“A big part of being a great university is getting our students to understand they have a responsibility to everyone else,” he said.

“If they’re going to do it, I’m going to do it,” he added.