By 8:15 on a Saturday morning, Ashley Foust had gathered eight New College volunteers to pile into a van and head across town to All Faiths Food Bank for a half-day of stocking and packing food for the region’s hungry.
Simply rounding up volunteers early on a weekend morning is a challenge for any volunteer coordinator, so that alone would count as a success. But it’s only a piece of the energetic community service program on campus so far this year.
New College’s history of volunteerism dates almost to its inception. In 1969, students volunteered to teach in protest schools in Sarasota’s Newtown community, set up by residents fighting the proposed closure of their local school.
More recently, it has continued with long-running tutoring programs at Newtown’s Robert L. Taylor Community Center, the founding of the SailFuture mentoring program on the College’s waterfront, and teaching ESL classes for the Sarasota County Literacy council.
This semester, students and staff have pitched in on cleaning up Coquina Beach, delivered food for Meals on Wheels, gardening and weeding at Orange Blossom Community Garden, and staffed a food festival in Newtown.
Foust, the new AmeriCorps VISTA coordinator at New College, has worked all over the country. Along the way, she has learned that volunteering isn’t always easy.
“Community service can be equal parts rewarding and heart-wrenching,” she said. “It can be difficult to educate yourself about the unique hardships other people face. It can be difficult to realize that someone you are serving at a food pantry has not eaten an actual meal in three or four days.
“That being said, the hug, the ‘thank you,’ or the silent look of relief in someone’s eyes when you are able to help them far exceeds any heartbreak you might feel when learning of unfair circumstances. Knowing that you are part of the solution to a problem that affects someone’s quality of life makes any difficulties fade away.”
She began volunteering at age 12, in her hometown of Zephyrhills at the annual Music and Motorcycles festival, setting roadblocks, posting signs, and working with vendors. But it became her career option after graduating from USF, when she discovered and joined AmeriCorps.
She traveled across the country, volunteering wherever needed — removing invasive plants in a Tennessee state parks; building a greenhouse in the Mississippi Delta for a community lacking access to fresh produce; responding to a natural disaster in South Carolina, and her favorite project: Gathering with hundreds of volunteers to build a playground for a low-income community in New Orleans during the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.
Her experience suggests that, despite being the first nonalumnus to serve as campus VISTA coordinator, Foust is a Novo Collegian at heart. She applied for the position, despite several other Florida openings, because of the College’s culture on social justice issues. “I believe that once you become aware of an injustice in the community, it becomes your duty to get involved and help the best you can,” she said.
Other students have already begun to follow that example, like frequent volunteer Allegra Nolan, a second-year student in environmental studies.
“I started volunteering in high school. I wouldn’t even say I volunteered a lot, compared to how much others did. But when I saw an opportunity to help out in any way, I took advantage of it, because I believe that if you are going to live on this earth, benefitting from it and enjoying this life, giving back in your own way is the least you can do to show gratitude for everything you have been so fortunate to receive.”