The University of Texas at Austin- What Starts Here Changes the World
Services Navigation

Be My Volunteer: More than 1,200 students spend Valentine's Day revitalizing Austin neighborhood

On Valentine’s morning, it was hard to say what was more surprising: that more than an inch of snow had blanketed central Texas, or that hundreds of University of Texas at Austin students headed out in the wintry weather to volunteer in an eastside neighborhood. The snowfall was a rarity, but the spirit of service wasn’t. This is the sixth year in a row that university students have swept en masse into a local community to transform it in one day.

Student volunteers brighten the halls of Allison Elementary with fresh paint
Student volunteers brighten the halls of Allison Elementary with fresh paint.

This year’s event, called Project 2004, was one of the largest single-day student and community-run service events in the country.

“We started out in 1999 calling it Project 1000,” says Glen Baumgart, director of volunteer and service learning. “But people kept coming and coming until we ended up with 2,000 students.”

This year may not have drawn the 2,000 expected students, but turnout was impressive, given the circumstances. Initial estimates put the total volunteer count around 1,300.

“We were both shocked and pleased to see so many students come out,” Baumgart says. “The weather had most people running. I think the turnout is a great example of how much UT students care about other people.”

Trash bags ready to be picked up line the sidewalk

Project 2004 is a student-initiated, student-led program of the Volunteer and Service Learning Center in the Office of the Dean of Students in partnership with Keep Austin Beautiful. Each year the project chooses a different Austin community as its focus and works closely with the people of the community to plan and coordinate the event.

Work centered this year on the Montopolis neighborhood in east Austin. Original plans had students working at Allison Elementary School and its surrounding area as well as Roy G. Guerrero Colorado River Park. When the weather made work at the park impossible, volunteers focused efforts on Allison Elementary.

The school was abuzz with activity all day. Students painted the hallways red, the doors green and the poles in the courtyard yellow. They put up basketball nets and goals. They cleared gardens and laid down garden paths. They scrubbed tile, dug an irrigation ditch and raked the pebbles in the playground.

Students clear brush and trash
Students clear brush and trash to prepare for Habitat for Humanity’s construction of 11 new homes.

In the area surrounding the school, students cleared brush and garbage, creating huge piles and filling hundreds of black plastic trash bags. In a few months, Habitat for Humanity will begin work on some of that land, building 11 new homes for lower income families. And when the work was done, volunteers gathered in the school cafeteria for burgers and veggie burgers, Cokes and conversation.

Eight students from the Terry Scholars Students Association sat together on Saturday afternoon after putting in hours picking up trash along the road near the school. Their volunteer efforts had an element of adventure in them.

“We found lots of dead animals and a live snake,” says Jacob Setterbo, a third-year student in civil engineering. “We were also having a beer bottle race to see who could collect the most empty bottles.”

“You do things you normally wouldn’t do,” adds Kristen Hooge, a first-year student in the Department of Radio-Television-Film. “But it’s disquieting to see this giant vacant lot across the street with all this trash. It’s good for people our age to get out and actually see this. We live such a sheltered university life.”

Student paints a picnic table orange at Allison Elementary

Project 2004 may be the largest event of its kind on campus, but volunteering has become the norm at the university. Seventy-four percent of university students say they volunteer at some point during the year, and the university contributes three million hours of volunteer service to the community. The dollar value of that service is enormous.

Keep Austin Beautiful, partner in Project 2004, donated the food and drinks as well as the Home Depot funds to buy supplies and tools for the event. This year they brought the usual burgers, buns and beverages, but they ran into a last-minute hitch. The vendor who was supposed to bring a grill backed out because of the weather. They had the food, but no way to do the feeding.

Student prepares a garden in courtyard at Allison Elementary

Project 2004 leaders turned to one of their own to save the day. Ricardo Gutierrez, chair of Project 2002, had since graduated from the university and gone on to culinary school. He was awakened on Saturday morning by a phone call asking him to come back out for the cause. Gutierrez rolled his own personal grill down the street and more than 2,000 burgers and veggie burgers were cooked by the project’s new personal chef.

Gutierrez’s appearance was met by applause and cheering.

This type of enthusiasm makes the event one that students return to year after year. Even as they dig, bag, sand, paint, sweep and rake, students have a blast. Laughter is the order of the day. And the impact of their work is immediately apparent. When the doors were closed at the end of the day at Allison Elementary, the school had gone through a metamorphosis.

This brought delight to the elementary school students who came back on Monday morning. They, too, discovered the difference a day can make.

Students and alumni of Allison Elementary pitch in
Students and alumni of Allison Elementary pitch in. Shirley Gattis (left) attended the school, as did her children. Her niece Jalia Efferson (middle) and friend Lauren Medina are now students.

“Everybody is so excited to see color in the halls,” says Beth Orton, a program manager with Communities in Schools, who is based at Allison Elementary.

Orton says children who arrived early started showing other kids around when they arrived. The school hallways are a fun place to be.

One little girl said, “Our school isn’t so boring anymore.”

It’s a fitting compliment after the unexpected excitement of this Valentine’s Day.

“After this year,” says Baumgart, “we can do anything.”



Vivé Griffith and Joah Spearman

Photos: Marsha Miller

Office of Public Affairs
P.O. Box Z
Austin, TX 78713

Fax 512-471-5812

  Updated 2014 October 13
  Comments to