Service First Trip beautifies neighborhood schools

More than 1,100 first-year students will paint murals and pull weeds at 13 local schools on Aug. 31

Here’s a pro tip from veteran Service First volunteer Patrick Gibbons: When painting a mural of America, never make Michigan blue. You’ll regret it once you start to paint the Great Lakes.

“I’ve learned a few things throughout the years,” said Gibbons, professor of physics, in Arts & Sciences. “Also, don’t step in a puddle of paint and then walk down the hall.”

Gibbons is a school coordinator for Service First, the community service program that dispatches 1,100 freshmen to 13 St. Louis schools. On Aug. 31, volunteers will pull weeds, clear out storage areas, organize files, decorate bulletin boards and label library books.

But much of the work will require a paintbrush and a little creativity. Gibbons’ students have painted maps, solar systems, alphabet letters, fruits and vegetables and, once, a group of students.

“We added the Wash. U. bear to that one,” Gibbons said. “The goal is to get them to paint the walls before they paint each other.”

Stephanie Kurtzman, director of the Community Service Office and associate director of the Gephardt Institute for Public Service, estimates that since the program’s inception in 1999, students have used 6,000 gallons of paint, 50,000 brushes and 8,500 drop clothes.

“It is a fun tradition and part of what we value,” Kurtzman said. “We offer it early on to send that message. To me service can be such a win-win. It can be good for the development of the Washington University community and gives students something fun and meaningful to do. And it benefits people in the St. Louis community at the same time.”

After their Service First projects, students will participate in the annual Community Service Fair at Clock Tower Plaza. Students may choose among dozens of student-run program from Dance Marathon to the Campus Y.

Recent School of Law graduate Veronica Harwin has volunteered at Service First for seven straight years. She will help Gibbons and his students populate a pre-K room with paintings of baby animals.

Prof. Patrick Gibbons has served as a Service First volunteer since 2000.

“We’ll do huge portions of the school – long hallways, cafeteria walls,” Harwin said. “My favorite part is at the end when we take the freshmen and show them all that we’ve done to make the school so alive and colorful. It makes a big change.”

Patrick Henry Principal Jana Haywood said it is a boost to her students.

“One of our goals is that aesthetics reflect how we feel about our students,” Haywood said.

“As you walk through our building there is evidence of Washington University’s presence everywhere. There are the educational components but also the liveliness of the bright colors. It reminds them that even outside of our community, people care.”

For several years, Gibbons’ team was assigned to Roosevelt High School, near Tower Grove Park. The principal seemed to change every year, but not the custodian.

“He was the constant,” Gibbons said. “This guy walked the halls and listened to what people were saying. So when we came back to look at what to do, he joined the group and told me what the students thought of each mural – ‘This one’s too dark, This one’s too juvenile.’ And we fixed them. Another thing he told me — even though some students would deface the walls, they never vandalized the murals. That meant something to me.”