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Warnell Dawgs Give Back: Students from across majors donate time to helping Athens community

Warnell wildlife student Colleen Piper volunteered for the Athens Water Festival last year. (Photo by Laurie Loftin)

Brittany Barnes is bent over in a field at Whitehall Forest, picking through acorns looking for the ones that’ll have the telltale bug infestation when several Boy Scouts start whooping.

Running down the hill, they’re waving a butterfly net, clearly excited about their captures. These boys are certainly not old enough to be Warnell students, but they’re getting a bit of the Warnell experience this autumn day as part of the biannual Boy Scouts Advance-a-Rama.

Dozens of volunteers, most of them from Warnell, spend the day twice a year volunteering to teach Boy Scouts different classes, drive them around or just help coordinate. Barnes, a research professional at Warnell, took on the insects class in October, helping the Boy Scouts in her group earn their badge.

“I love teaching kids about insects,” Barnes said. “I want them to get excited about how important, dynamic and amazing these creatures are. I especially love to teach kids that they can make a living working with insects when they grow up!”

A photo of Boy Scouts looking at a captured butterfly

Brittany Barnes helps Boy Scouts with the butterfly they caught. (Photo by Sandi Martin)

Volunteering around Warnell doesn’t stop with the Boy Scouts. The University of Georgia is often criticized for the perception that although it is such a major part of Athens-Clarke County, its students not only don’t consider themselves part of the community, but don’t pitch in to help with its many needs.

But looking around Warnell, it’s clear that the natural resources students on south campus don’t fall into that category. From volunteering with the Boy Scouts, to Sandy Creek Nature Park, to training future guide dogs, or fostering stray pets, Warnell students, staff and faculty give back a lot and often—even when they struggle to find the time.

Warnell Dawgs Give Back

Dark clouds loom overhead one warm October Sunday when several Warnell student ambassadors start walking down Whitehall Road. Wearing bright orange vests and carrying trash bags, the group start methodically picking up litter from the sides of the busy highway—some paper here, a bottle there.

They might spot a can hiding in a bush, so they’ll practically crawl in to nab it.

The Warnell student ambassadors adopted this highway through Keep Athens-Clarke County Beautiful’s Adopt-a-Highway program, and so a group will regularly get together each semester and pick up the trash drivers carelessly toss out their windows.

“It’s really just putting our school out there that we’re not afraid to get our hands dirty to improve the community,” said Jarrett Craven, one of this year’s ambassadors. Craven noted that each ambassador is required to complete a certain number of volunteer hours, but becoming an ambassador isn’t easy: Each one must apply and go through an interview process, and in return they get one credit hour for the semester.

Katlyn LaVelle, Warnell’s student relations and outreach coordinator, oversees the ambassador program. That one credit hour is not why the students do this, she said. “These folks are in it because they are student leaders,” LaVelle said. “They really have servant hearts, and they appreciate all that they have gotten from Warnell. They want to give back.”

And it’s making a difference. Warnell students have volunteered to help man the Athens Water Festival seven of its eight years, said Laurie Loftin, program specialist with Athens-Clarke County’s water conservation office. The department, she said, has come to rely on them to help with the annual festival because if the students say they’re going to come out, they always do.

“With volunteers, you never know who’s going to show up or who’s going to flake out on you,” Loftin said. “But not Warnell students.”

The festival, held every year the weekend after Labor Day at Sandy Creek Park, has grown in attendance each year, drawing 800 people in 2017. It’s always possible that the festival will fall on a football home game day, Loftin said, which can make volunteer attendance iffy. “Warnell still shows up strong,” she said. “That’s not always the case with other UGA students.”

And their help isn’t a token appearance, either, she said. They come out with animals and really work with the kids who might be too nervous to touch that snake at first. “They are so encouraging and so patient with the kids,” she said.

On their own

Student ambassadors track their hours, but most Warnell students volunteer their time outside of the classroom silently and without any fanfare.

Keeping track of how students volunteer their time—if they do—isn’t something UGA or Warnell does, but there are some self-reported numbers and events that show that Bulldogs do frequently donate their time to a cause.

ServeUGA, which is part of the Division of Student Affairs’ Center for Leadership and Service, holds an annual “Dawg Day of Service,” among other volunteer events, to help foster a culture of service at the university. Over the fiscal year 2016-17, the office reports, 12,502 students completed 363,078 hours of service to the community, including specified service days like Dawg Day of Service, the MLK Day of Service and Interfaith Day of Service.

Warnell students, however, frequently volunteer with no one watching.

PhD student Melissa Shockey has been fostering dogs for the Athens Humane Society since 2013, and at first, she said, her time commitment was pretty minimal. She and her partner, Greg, already had two dogs of their own that they were feeding, exercising and bathing. So adding one more to the mix was easy. But Shockey has moved on from being a mere foster—now she’s on the board and has opened her home to even more dogs. Things, she said, are far more time consuming than they once were.

A photo of Melissa Shockey with two dogs she fostered

PhD student Melissa Shockey fosters dogs for Athens Canine Rescue. (Photo by Sandi Martin)

She manages the organization’s Facebook page, does its “Pup of the Week” feature, and is currently fostering more than three dogs at a time. That means more vet visits and meeting potential adopters. She’s also taken on dogs with special medical needs, which typically require more recovery time. She also goes to the local shelter to evaluate dogs to help out potential adopters choose the right pet.

“There are a lot of times I have spent late nights trying to get deadlines in for my Pup of the Week or email back applications or working on stuff for my research,” she said. “I'm a horrible example of ‘time commitment it takes to foster’ because I do so much more than just foster for the rescue.”

But she wouldn’t change it for anything, she said. “A lot of people swear they couldn't foster because they are afraid they would get too attached,” Shockey said. “Seeing the pictures of how happy the dogs are with their families and how much happier those families are because of the dog in their life is totally worth it! Because then I can go back to the shelter and start all over again Which may sound tiring to some but that’s what I love. Taking a dog that maybe is shy or scared or sick or hurt and helping them become this happy awesome well-adjusted family pet!”

There are a lot of animal lovers in Warnell who don’t mind taking on the role of dog parent for a while.

Holly Jamieson can often be seen around Warnell with a Golden Retriever puppy wearing a bright yellow vest. Pilot doesn’t know it yet, but one day he might make a huge difference in someone’s life. Jamieson is a puppy raiser for the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind, which means she helps train and socialize the puppies that then go on for more training.

Pilot is Jamieson’s third puppy she has raised for the organization, and she said although it can be a lot of fun, it’s also a lot of work. “Some days are hard, and it gets frustrating,” she said. “But getting to see the difference these dogs can make in someone’s life who really needs them makes it all worth it.”

A photo of a Warnell student with a guide dog in training

Kursti Ropp, a wildlife student at Warnell, is a group leader with the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind. (Photo by Sandi Martin)

Taking the time it needs

Bob Ratajczak is the person at Warnell who took on helping organize the Advance-a-Rama each spring and fall. Hosted by the Cherokee District, it has been held at Warnell for more than a decade. It draws volunteers from across UGA—faculty, students and staff help put it on twice a year.

The fall Advance-a-Rama, Ratajczak said, had seven organizers, more than 30 instructors from Warnell, and half a dozen van drivers. It would not go on, he said, without the volunteers who spend an entire Saturday twice a year helping out. “It’s very important for the advancement of the Boy Scouts in the northeast Georgia area and even into North Carolina and South Carolina,” Ratajczak said, “because many units are small and don’t have the expertise in their unit to teach the various merit badges the Scouts need to earn for rank advancement.”

Barnes said she was surprised at how much time she spent not only the day of—more than eight hours the Saturday of the event—but also to prepare for it. She spent several hours prepping, “everything from getting live insects checked out, preparing Power Points, figuring out logistics, and working hard to make sure they were able to complete all the requirements for the insect badge.”

And it was worth it, she said. “I felt great after volunteering on Saturday,” Barnes said. “The kids were amazing. We had them for eight hours and the entire time they were enthusiastic, intrigued and really excited about everything they learned and did. They paid attention, were super respectful and were a great group.”





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