Building homes, cooking and sorting clothes for those in need.

This crew cooks and packages food at the Interfaith Food Pantry in Morris Plains.
This crew cooks and packages food at the Interfaith Food Pantry in Morris Plains.

January 2016 – Students, professors, administrators and staffers at Drew University spent Martin Luther King Jr. Day building homes, sorting donated clothes and packaging toiletries for the homeless.

Students also put their craft skills to work, making Valentine’s Day cards and coloring white pillowcases for local children (see photo gallery below). On what was technically a day off—and the last day before the start of the spring semester—Drewids were decidedly on, energized by King’s national day of service. Plans for the on- and off-campus activities came together in just a few weeks and participation exceeded expectations as the University began a new tradition that further illustrates its connection to surrounding communities.

On a quiet road in Morris Township, a dozen from Drew spent the chilly morning at a site of a multifamily home that Morris Habitat for Humanity is building for low- and middle-income residents. Warmed by space heaters and coffee, the crew climbed ladders and wielded hammers, saws and brooms.

Sophomore Lisa Rojas doesn’t like heights, so she gladly let another student climb a ladder in their work area. Just two weeks ago, Rojas, an Elizabeth resident, was in New Orleans to help rebuild Hurricane Katrina-damaged homes as part of the Volunteer Resource Center’s alternative winter break.

“I didn’t want to stop [with New Orleans]—I wanted to keep helping,” Rojas explained.

Center for Civic Engagement Director Amy Koritz smiled under a face mask as she worked alongside junior Christian Lisandro. They painted red lines on the unfinished floor to mark the locations of electrical outlets so they wouldn’t accidentally get covered with sheetrock later on.

Lisandro, a chemistry major from Union City, volunteered after resolving to be more active in school and the community.

“It’s a humbling experience,” Lisandro said, adding, “I’m very grateful.”

The partners in another part of the building, Civic Scholar Adam Oppegaard and Drew President MaryAnn Baenninger, had something in common: both had worked on Habitat for Humanity projects before. Indeed, the need for affordable housing is vast and wide.

Five minutes away, at the Market Street Mission Thrift Store in Morristown, students and professors sorted through boxes of donated jewelry, clothing and shoes that the store sells at nominal cost. The proceeds help the Market Street Mission provide essentials for needy area residents.

“Just knowing that I’m helping someone, that someone’s life is a little bit better” makes the work worthwhile, said freshman Imelda Reimer of McAllen, Texas.

The volunteers hopped from one task to the other, asking for more work as soon as they’d finished what was in front of them. At the Interfaith Food Pantry in Morris Plains, another 18 volunteers cooked and packaged food, meaning a total of 40 Drewids participated in the three off-campus events.

Back on campus, about 90 filled two rooms in the Ehinger Center, creating a bustle of activity, much of it centered on children. In one room, for example, students made Valentine’s Day cards and used colored markers to draw superhero logos, flowers and even SpongeBob on white pillow cases. The cards are heading to Children’s Specialized Hospital and the cases, to Morristown Neighborhood House.

Others sorted clothes into leaf bags and toiletries into sandwich bags for Bridges in Summit. As they worked, the sound of King’s voice filled the room, as Drew’s radio station replayed the “American Dream” speech he gave at Drew in 1964. To paraphrase what King said that day, the volunteers displayed a world perspective, an understanding that “we are interdependent.” And what could be a more fitting tribute to the civil rights leader than that?