Aug. 24, 2015 – First year University of Houston Law Center students, along with faculty and staff members, fanned out across the city last weekend during the school’s second annual Community Service Day.
The event, initiated and implemented in fall 2014 by Dean Leonard M. Baynes and Associate Dean for Student Affairs Sondra Tennessee, allowed the students, many of whom come from places other than Houston, including overseas, to get a close-up look at the city and do something positive for its residents. S
Students helped out at five locations including Hermann Park; the Houston chapter headquarters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; the Mayor’s Back to School Fest at the UH main campus; the Houston Food Bank’s main warehouse; and the Habitat for Humanity ReStore.
“It’s very important for us as the Law Center to be engaged in the community,” Baynes told one group of student volunteer gathered at Hermann Park early Saturday morning.
They were greeted by Diane Kerr, director of volunteer programs for the Hermann Park Conservancy, who gave them two options: use a kind of “Frisbee” net to help clear the park’s lake of trash and debris or snip the dead leaves off of tree saplings.
At the Houston headquarters of the NAACP in the city’s Third Ward, another group along with Richard Whiteley ’99, president of the UH Law Alumni Association, met with chapter President James Douglas and Vice President and General Counsel Taft Foley. They told the volunteers their task was to canvass property owners along Dowling Street to gather signatures on a petition asking City Council to change the street’s name. The three-mile-long street, which runs through the heart of one of Houston’s historically African-American communities, is named after Richard “Dick” Dowling, a Confederate commander in the Civil War.
Douglas explained that after Reconstruction, Houston’s white city leaders changed the street’s name not only to honor Dowling, but to send a message to the area’s black residents. Foley said petitioners hope to rename the street “Emancipation Avenue” in recognition of nearby Emancipation Park, a property bought by newly freed slaves after the war and donated to the city.
“We think that would be a just name,” Foley said. Several other streets in the city, almost all of them in predominantly black neighborhoods, are named after Confederate soldiers, Douglas explained, but it was felt that Dowling Street should be the first to be changed.
Back at the University of Houston, another group of volunteers was checking people in to the Mayor’s Back to School Fest, hosted by Mayor Annise Parker. Thousands of people filed into the huge Athletics and Alumni Building to stock up on school supplies donated by Shell and other sponsors and to receive information about services provided by the city, the university, and other institutions.
Smiling under a blazing hot sun while directing families inside, incoming student Gloriana Gonzalez said she was thrilled to have the opportunity to help.
“It feels really good to be able to make a difference, even if it’s just for one day” said the Houston native.
Inside the main hall, Sarah Bird, another 1L, checked in people who had previously registered online. Byrd, who has worked in public education, said it was great to help underprivileged families get some of the basics.
“I’ve seen what it’s like for kids who show up without the things they need,” she said.
At the southeast side warehouse of the Houston Food Bank, a large group of UHLC volunteers helped sort donated items, using a sophisticated scanner that determined whether each item was suitable for distribution to Houston-area food pantries and other locations.
Other volunteers stacked items on shelves inside the massive warehouse and helped clean the floors of packaging debris Habitait Restore??.
“I really like it. It’s really well organized,” 1L Erin Kaufman said as she scanned items in the sorting room. The UHLC group had split into several teams, and they competed to see which could scan the most items during their shift.
By the end of the morning, the teams had scanned a total 14,619 items, announced volunteer coordinator Amy Altchuler.
At the ReStore Warehouse of the Houston branch of Habitat for Humanity, UHLC folks helped consolidate and organize used goods collected by the organization for resale to the public. Proceeds from the store contribute to the nonprofit’s mission of building affordable housing.
During a break while chatting with Baynes and Tennessee, Simon Harrall, an incoming part-time student who has spent nearly three decades in the energy industry, said the event gave the class an opportunity not just to volunteer, but to build positive relationships among themselves.
Harrall noted that in earlier orientation events, notably a talk by Tony Buzbee ’97, a successful personal injury lawyer, much emphasis was placed on the highly competitive nature of law school, particularly in the first year. The Community Service Day was a welcome antidote to that, he said.