The Big Event

Shared Stories, Traditions
on August 4, 2008
Tim Johnson

Running amid stacks of shovels and paint pans, ladders and limb loppers, Blaine Brawley, 21, and Bryan Alldredge, 22, help distribute tools to students at Texas A&M University in College Station. Within 15 minutes, 10,600 students are geared up and ready to tackle chores at more than a thousand local homes, churches and schools.

“It’s our way of saying thank-you to the community for supporting the college,” says Anna Rash, 22, who directed this year’s army of weed whackers and window washers as they fanned out March 29 across College Station (pop. 67,980) and Bryan (pop. 65,660).

The Big Event, billed as the largest, one-day, student-run service project in the nation, began at Texas A&M in 1982 and has been adopted by 71 colleges across the United States. Every year, tens of thousands of students hold the day of gratitude for the towns that they call home during their college years.

Ready, set, hoe
College Station residents eagerly await student workers each year. They’ve submitted job requests for everything from porch painting to drainage-ditch digging and been visited by a student from The Big Event committee to see how many workers and what tools are needed for the job. Power tools aren’t allowed, so trimming trees and sawing logs require muscle, sweat and hand tools.

“I’m always happy to see this help,” says Raymond Olson, 52, as he greets 14 shovel-toting young men from Walton Hall dormitory. “Every year they get another piece of yard work done. They’ve moved rocks, cleaned flower beds, moved lumber, raked leaves.”

Olson has hauled in a mound of dirt for this year’s landscaping project. “I’d like to make a gradual incline here. It’s too steep to mow,” Olson says as he directs the students to the slope behind his house. The students get busy shoveling dirt into wheelbarrows, hauling it to the slope and evening out the area.

William Cook, 18, still has a smile on his glistening face as he wheels his 11th load of dirt.

“You get a good feeling from helping out,” he says.

A few miles away at the home of Laura Schuett, 48, students from Phi Beta Lamda business fraternity rake and bag leaves in a 1-acre yard. “It’s fun and it’s good to give back to the community,” Janelle Colborne, 20, says while tying a trash bag loaded with leaves.

“These kids are doing a great job,” Schuett says. “They brought rakes and they’re using a snow shovel to scoop leaves. They’re really helping people.”

What sets The Big Event apart from most service projects is that residents aren’t required to meet any age or income guidelines. On the contrary, every resident is invited to fill out a job request for the one big day of thanks. Still, older residents like Jean and Anita Donaho, both 82, may appreciate the help and the visit most.

Anita has had a stroke and needs a walker, while Jean, who has Parkinson’s disease, uses an electric scooter. The Donahos have the students carry furniture upstairs at their home, straighten their garage and clean flower beds flanking their front sidewalk.

“I’ve already thought of what I want them to do next year if we’re still around,” says Anita, who baked chocolate-chip cookies for her household helpers. “We’ll have them move a compost pile.” Tessa Thibodeau, 21, listens as she pulls iris bulbs from a flower bed. “This is something so simple to us, but it helps them a lot,” she says. “I think we forget in a college town that there is a community outside us. This is a good way to help.”

One big idea
Forging a bond between campus and community is what Joe Nussbaum had in mind in the fall of 1982 when he suggested that Texas A&M students perform a day of chores for residents. He envisioned a day of thanks from the college kids to the city folks for putting up with their extra traffic and noise.

“We just threw out there the concept of a one-day service day. We thought volunteer service was a noble effort and this was a way where students could connect with the community,” says Nussbaum, 46, a former student vice president who now owns a sign company in Arlington, Texas. “We started calling it ‘The Big Event’ because we didn’t know what else to call it.”

Six student leaders worked through the fall to organize the first Big Event on Feb. 20, 1983. About 2,000 students did chores for residents and mowed cemeteries in College Station and Bryan. “We started out that first year with the same motivation as students have today, but goodness gracious, it’s grown,” Nussbaum says. “It’s so gratifying to see how The Big Event has become an institution at Texas A&M. It’s of incredible importance.”

And The Big Event keeps getting bigger. Since 2006, Texas A&M has hosted The Big Event Conference to train college students from across the country on how to organize their own day of gratitude. Students work on hundreds of behind-the-scenes details: fund-raising, publicity, recruiting student workers, distributing job request forms to churches and organizations, tool inventory, inspecting job sites, printing maps to each location, and procuring refreshments and speakers for kickoff rallies.

All the preparations culminate in The Big Event, when students spruce up their campus communities.

“We actually had more students than jobs this year,” says Susannah Shriner, 21, director of The Big Event at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg (pop. 39,573). Some 3,600 volunteers completed 425 jobs, including washing fire trucks and spreading mulch on school playgrounds. Likewise, at Pittsburg State University in Pittsburg, Kan. (pop. 19,243), a record turnout of 525 students pitched in to help residents with chores, such as cleaning gutters and picking up downed limbs from an ice storm.

At Dickinson State University in Dickinson, N.D. (pop. 16,010), students volunteered to work at both homes and businesses. Pam Wanner, owner of The Twisted Bakery, was among the delighted beneficiaries.

“The students put shelving together and I needed a door for my gluten-free room to seal it off and they did that,” Wanner says. “They were fun to have around and we got a lot done.”

Bradley Auch, 23, student director of Dickinson’s Big Event, initially met with some skepticism when he explained the project. “A couple of business owners said, ‘You guys just want to work . . . and not get paid?’”

But that’s exactly the mission when tens of thousands of college students pick up rakes and paintbrushes for one big day of chores in their homes-away-from-home.