The City Mission has 4.5 acres of grounds to maintain. It has lawns to mow, leaves to rake and gardens to prune on top of the 130 full-time residents it feeds and shelters.
So when Union College students take the time to help out, the City Mission is always thankful.
“They come quite often, in fact,” said Ken Kottke, the mission’s retired property manager who now gardens at the campus. “They’re one of our biggest supporters.”
More than 300 Union students spent their Saturday afternoon in boots and gloves. They pulled weeds, pruned gardens, hauled away debris and lent a hand sprucing up more than a dozen sites and organizations around the city as part of the 18th annual John Calvin Toll Day.
“Who’s John Calvin Toll, guys?” Kottke asked a group of college women holding shovels in the backyard of the mission’s Family Life Center.
After a few moments of silence, one student recited a short biography. Toll was one of Union’s first graduates in 1799. His great-great-grandson Al Hill and his wife, Perrie Hill, created a fund nearly two decades ago to encourage students to volunteer.
The Hills’ effort has undoubtedly been a success. Every year, hundreds of students give back to their community plenty of times more than the annual day of service each autumn. It was actually a former Union College president who started the City Mission of Schenectady more than a century ago, said Kottke.
Volunteering is practically instinctive at this point for Nuzhat Chowdhury. All the community service she did in high school stuck with the Union College freshman.
“It’s kind of a passion of mine,” she said. “I do it because I love it. It makes you feel good about yourself to try to help others, even if they won’t know you’re helping them.”
A group of about six freshmen and sophomores were weeding and mulching on Saturday. They trimmed off dead flowers form hydrangea bushes, pulled out dead tomato plants from an herb garden, planted lilacs and a Japanese maple, and mulched two garden areas behind the mission.
Chowdhury is surrounded by beauty on her campus, and believes there’s no reason others in the city shouldn’t look out their windows and see a beautiful landscape, as well.
“I feel like every place should be as beautiful as Union,” she said. “So you do whatever you can to make this world beautiful.”
shovels and bags
Schenectady residents might have noticed the many students out and about with shovels and bags Saturday. A group of students removed fallen branches and overgrown shrubbery from the familiar green train outside of miSci, formerly the Schenectady Museum.
Other sites got some help, too. Handfuls of students spent about three hours each helping the Campus Kitchen at Union College, Catholic Charities AIDS Services on Hegeman Street, Girls Inc. on Albany Street, Habitat for Humanity, the Salvation Army and Vale Cemetery, to name a few.
Shreya Chowdhury — no relation to Nuzhat — plopped a once-white, now brown hydrangea into a wheelbarrow below a raised garden platform.
She repeated this motion a few times, before moving on to another shrub.
“I just thought it was a nice day outside,” she said, with a shrug.
The sophomore mechanical engineering student at Union College wanted to spend her Saturday doing something good, so she was happy to learn a spot had opened up on the event waitlist.
Shreya Chowdhury also volunteers at the college’s Kenney Community Center, which helps coordinate the annual John Calvin Toll Day.
“This helps you get to know more people and get out into the community,” she said. “Helping keep things clean and nice feels good. I think if things are kept well, then more people would be encouraged to come here.”