AKRON, Ohio – More than 600 volunteers have been working behind the scenes to benefit Akron’s North Hill neighborhood for the interfaith day of service known as First Serve, taking place Sunday, Sept. 13.
First Serve is led by the First Congregational Church of Hudson in partnership with the Islamic Society of Akron & Kent and Temple Beth Shalom of Hudson. The group partners with many organizations each year to concentrate on improving a neighborhood.
This is First Serve’s third year of rallying its network to for Akron’s International neighborhood, with a focus on the schools. In previous years, volunteers have targeted the Summit Lake neighborhood and areas in Cleveland and Hudson.
Because of the pandemic, First Serve is operating differently this year than the past eight years. Pre-pandemic, the volunteers gathered in the selected neighborhood for the day and went to work on a multitude of projects.
This year, volunteers have been at work since May on projects that include building a hoop house and picnic benches and renovating raised garden beds at Akron Co-Op Farms, which offers residents large garden plots. They deep cleaned the pantry at the North Hill Community House, which hosts food give-distribution days each month for the community.
They’ve also put together 900 back-to-school supply kits for North High School students and wrote notes of support for 500 welcome back kits for every school employee at all five North Akron schools.
On Sunday, they’ll don N-95 masks and build educational activities for the neighborhood’s pre-Kindergarten children. The four “learning landscapes” were designed by University of Akron art school graduate students John Aylward and Julian Curet, and undergraduate art student Katelynn Olsen. The students have been assisted by professionals from Summit Education Initiative and ArtsNow.
Curet, who also participated in First Serve last year, created a “You Belong Here” mirror, which will be installed in the Reading Garden at the North Hill Library. Fashioned like colorful peace pole, the mirror will be installed at child-height and will bear positive messages in English and four other languages.
“I wanted the frame around it to be colorful and engaging,” Curet said. “My focus was the mirror part of it where the child becomes the center of their own creation. Mirrors promote self-awareness, confidence and storytelling.”
Curet also created a project with a seed kit that kids tape to a window so they can watch the seed germinate at home.
This year, kids will create self-portraits that will be hung on a “This is Me” wall at the North Hill Library. Hopscotch mural boards with numbers, shapes and colors are being painted on sidewalks at Cascade Village, Children’s Center at Valley View, Harris-Jackson Community Learning Center, Patterson Par, and North High School’s preschool program’s play area.
Throughout the years, First Congregational Church has supported nonprofits in Summit Lake and North Hill with funding and volunteers, said Sue Wimer, the church’s director of outreach ministries and co-chair of First Serve.
First Serve is a way to supplement that support by bringing in volunteers to fix, rebuild and clean essential areas so nonprofits can focus on their core missions, Wimer said.
“Whether it’s cleaning the food pantries or painting or stuff that nonprofits have to deal with all the time but it takes their attention away from what they’re trying to accomplish, like feeding people, clothing people,” she said. “What can we do to help you get your job done?”
First Serve also unites people.
“It’s opportunities for people of different backgrounds—cultural, economic, ethnic, religious backgrounds—to come together, work side-by-side as a way to get to know one another bridging that gap,” she said. “Just to understand the people that live very close by but due to circumstances we just don’t know each other, so this is one way to do that.”
First Serve in normal times welcomes volunteers, she said. This year, many activities were taken care of before the big day to allow people to stay safe and social distance.