Sami Leibforth, shovel in hand, was beginning her third hour of manual labor on a recent Saturday morning in an empty lot on Chicago’s West Side when someone pointed out that some of her fellow college students were likely still in bed. As if in response, Leibforth sunk her shovel into a pile of wood chips and broadcast more mulch over a freshly turned garden bed.
“Why sleep in when you can help out?” she said.
Leibforth, a senior intercultural studies major from Palatine, was one of 115 Elmhurst College students who had risen early to do their part in a pair of community service projects. At Christian Valley Baptist Church in North Lawndale, she and a few dozen other Elmhurst students were making over a rock-strewn and sinkhole-marred lot that doubles as a playground for neighborhood kids. The Elmhurst students carted in six truckloads of topsoil, filled in a few dangerous holes, cleared debris and spread grass seed. Around the lot’s edges, they created beds and planted greenery: asters, daylilies, black-eyed Susans and native grasses.
Inside the church sanctuary, more students were at work painting the fellowship hall and baptismal font. And a few miles away, in West Garfield Park, another four dozen Elmhurst students were working at West Garfield Corinthian Temple Church of God in Christ. They handed out more than 260 bags of fresh produce—corn, green beans, tomatoes, bananas—to residents of a neighborhood that contends with a dearth of grocery stores, making it hard for families to find fruit and vegetables. Elmhurst nursing students, working with professionals from the Compassionate Care Network, also helped offer health screenings to residents at the church.
The work was the latest effort of Partners for Peace, a hands-on social justice initiative that deploys students, faculty and others from the Elmhurst College community to serve the College’s neighbors.
“We talk so much about the violence and the despair in these struggling neighborhoods. Our response is to try to offer some hope, by letting people know that we care about them and want to partner with them,” said the Rev. Dr. Ronald Beauchamp, director of the College’s Niebuhr Center for Faith and Action, which organized the projects. “We try to use the resources we have to address their needs to the best of our ability.”
Each fall for four years now, participants have been making the short journey from Elmhurst to the impoverished neighborhoods of Chicago’s West Side to work on projects addressing gun violence, hunger and other problems. The projects have become so popular with Elmhurst students that organizers this year decided to work on two sites in one day.
“It’s too easy for us to get stuck in our own little bubble on campus,” said Margaret Sumney, a sophomore theology major from Lexington, Kentucky, who was preparing a garden bed on the edge of the lot for planting. “Even if you’re active on campus, there’s nothing like reaching out to the community around you. This is a chance for us to do something for this church and for this community.”
At Corinthian Temple, members of the congregation thanked the Elmhurst students for their work by offering them a soul food dinner. They also presented an energetic performance by the Gospel choir Joshua’s Troop that had church members and students alike dancing and clapping along.
Jazmine Martinez, a senior from West Chicago who was working alongside Sumney, is a veteran of Partners for Peace projects. Last fall, she was part of a group that spent a day at Mount Pilgrim Baptist Church in West Garfield Park, offering fresh produce and assisting with health screenings.
“People talk down to our generation sometimes,” she said. “They think all we want to do is party. But everyone here is trying to make a difference and do something good. I’m super excited about this.”
It wasn’t only students at work. Judy Buban, a receptionist in the College’s office of student accounts, was transplanting daylilies and asters into the beds the students had prepared. Buban had donated the plants from her backyard garden in Elmhurst.
Even while the landscaping crew was completing its work, another group of students was getting ready to do its part on the opposite side of the church sanctuary: The Elmhurst College Jazz Band was tuning up for an outdoor concert on the church’s front lawn. The band has been a fixture at Partners for Peace projects, acting as cultural ambassadors for the College. When the players finally launched into their first tune—the Ella Fitzgerald standard “I’m Beginning to See the Light”—passersby on Homan Street stopped to listen and nod their heads appreciatively in time with the music. A sleepy Saturday morning in the neighborhood was starting to feel a little bit like a party.
The student service projects were part of the College’s ongoing participation in the President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge, a White House initiative that promotes cooperation and community service among faiths. Elmhurst is one of 250 colleges and universities committed to service that, in the words of a White House document, builds “understanding between different communities and contribute[s] to the common good.”
By now, on the lot next to the church, the grass seed had been spread and the flowers planted. The students who had spent the morning hunched over shovels and rakes were walking over to hear the jazz band play. “This is the best part,” someone said. And Jazmine Martinez was already planning a return visit.
“I can’t wait to come back,” she said. “I just have to see what it looks like when the grass comes up.”