By Marney Coleman, Greenheart International Service Learning and Outreach Coordinator

CCI Greenheart’s Work and Travel program annually hosts a conference in Chicago to connect sending agencies, employers, community organizers and CCI Greenheart staff. At the conference, stakeholders discuss the year’s achievements, best practices, and programming, including the Greenheart Club. To truly illustrate the importance of volunteerism to our stakeholders, each year conference attendees participate in a Greenheart Service Project. Not only does this set a strong example of volunteering to our Work & Travel participants, but it also allows for stakeholders to understand first-hand the importance of volunteering in a cultural exchange program.

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Each year the volunteer Greenheart Service Projects are organized around a theme. This year, we focused on aligning our volunteer project locations with the four types of volunteer service:

 1. Advocacy: Promoting and persuading other to help change policies and laws
2. Awareness: Educating others and sharing information in order to encourage positive behavior changes
3. Direct Service: Directly engaging in a project that will benefit others or the environment
4. Philanthropy: Promoting the welfare of others through donation of money and/or goods

With this guiding vision in mind, we selected four unique non-profits in Chicago for our volunteer efforts: Jackson Park Advisory Council, New Life for Old Bags, YMCA of Metro Chicago, The Salvation Army Chicago Metropolitan Division. These organizations serve a broad range of Chicagoans, and each has unique program offerings for their clients. Over 60 Work and Travel Conference attendees embarked upon volunteer service at these locations across the north, west, and south sides of Chicago.

Jackson Park Advisory Council (JPAC) served as our Advocacy organization. At JPAC, volunteers participated in a beach clean-up at 57th Street Beach in the historic Jackson Park – the site of Chicago’s 1893 World’s Fair. JPAC advocates for the beautification, maintenance, and utilization of the many amenities of Jackson Park and supports the citizens who use it.

The JPAC volunteer group taking a selfie while cleaning up 57th Street Beach.

The JPAC volunteer group taking a selfie while cleaning up 57th Street Beach.

At New Life for Old Bags, an organization that brings awareness to environmental issues and homelessness in Chicago, volunteers learned about their innovative project of crocheting old plastic bags into sleeping mats for individuals experiencing homelessness. Volunteers sorted bags, converted bags into plastic yarn, and helped crochet a new sleeping mat.

Volunteers at New Life for Old Bags displaying a completed sleeping mat made out of plastic bags to be given to homeless individuals in Chicago.

Volunteers at New Life for Old Bags displaying a completed sleeping mat made out of plastic bags to be given to homeless individuals in Chicago.

Another group of volunteers participated in direct service with residents at the Senior Housing facilities at the South Chicago YMCA. Volunteers facilitated a BINGO activity and served refreshments to senior residents. The South Chicago YMCA offers affordable housing and social services to seniors in the area.

Volunteers preparing to play BINGO with senior residents at the South Chicago YMCA.

Volunteers preparing to play BINGO with senior residents at the South Chicago YMCA.

Volunteers at the Salvation Army – one of the nation’s largest philanthropic non-profits – traveled to the near west side to the Salvation Army’s Harbor Light center. The center serves as a rehabilitation center and is one of the Salvation Army’s largest substance abuse recovery centers in the U.S. Volunteers assisted in bagging food in the kitchen facility and maintaining the grounds.

Some of the volunteers preparing food in the kitchen of the Salvation Army Harbor Light center.

Some of the volunteers preparing food in the kitchen of the Salvation Army Harbor Light center.

We would like to offer our sincere thanks to these organizations; not only for warmly welcoming our groups, but more importantly, for all the work they are doing in Chicago communities. During a reflection activity, we synthesized our experiences, feelings, and new knowledge gathered from these volunteer experiences. Partner Employer Brent Gasser, of Yogi Bear Jellystone Park in Wisconsin Dells, said that the volunteer experience is consistently his favorite part of the conference. It is clear that these volunteer service experiences are memorable parts of the Work and Travel Conference experience and serve as a tool for stakeholders to further motivate and inspire their participants to serve their communities as well!