Amol Patadia, a 20-year-old UF biomedical engineering sophomore, rakes fallen leaves behind the home of a visually impaired woman in Gainesville’s Porters Community on Saturday as a part of The Big Event, a daylong service event organized by UF Student Government. About 760 students participated at about 45 locations across Gainesville.

 

Martin Vassolo / Alligator Staff

Mamie Leath sat inside the small, light-peach home in Gainesville’s Porters Community where she has lived for most of her life.

Outside, in the heat of mid-day, a group of strangers worked.

At 89 years old, Leath cares for herself, but her yard remains a challenge. Rusted bicycles and heaps of fallen leaves lie just outside her window.

On Saturday, as the sun beat down, a group of about six UF students dressed in bright orange T-shirts volunteered to help.

“I feel grateful,” Leath said, as a breathing tube laid across her face and a walker assisted her slow movements.

At about 44 other locations, about 760 students worked for four hours around Gainesville as a part of The Big Event, a service event organized by UF’s Student Government. Although The Big Event is a nationwide program universities across the country take part in, Saturday marked the first time UF hosted its own, said Zachary Morris, The Big Event chairperson at UF.

Earlier that morning, student volunteers gathered at the North Lawn for the event’s opening ceremony to learn where they would be volunteering.

Student Body President Susan Webster said she wanted UF students to participate in The Big Event after learning of it from Texas A&M University student representatives, who said it started at the university in 1982.

“We have a Student Body that’s dedicated to the Gator good,” she said. “We don’t just say it, we show it.”

Webster chose Morris, a UF accounting junior, to organize the UF program. It cost $15,000 to set up with SG funding and sponsors, Morris said. The event, which will grow in future years, is an opportunity for students to show the community their gratitude, he added.

“All of us are part of the Gainesville community,” the 20-year-old said.

After the ceremony, students dispersed throughout the city to paint fences, clean yards and volunteer in different neighborhoods.

At the Porters Community, GiGi Simmons, 44, navigated neighborhood streets in her SUV, overseeing the roughly six groups of students stationed there.

She checked on their progress and handed out bottles of water, admiring the good the volunteers were bringing to the community she has lived in her entire life.

“It’s such a great thing for college kids to get out here,” she said. “They are the future.”

Simmons worked with Morris to place the students where they were most needed, like 60-year-old Marvin Anderson’s backyard — an area left untouched for the past three years.

BriAunna Palmer, a UF industrial and systems engineering freshman, was happy to spend her Saturday helping.

Palmer, 18, wore gloves as she carried trash from Anderson’s backyard to the sidewalk for about half an hour.

“When you’re actually helping, you don’t care that it’s hot, you don’t care that it’s a Saturday — you’re just here to help,” Palmer said.

Anderson, who said he may turn his backyard into a garden, smiled.

“It feel good to have somebody,” he said.

Contact Paige Fry at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @paigexfry

Paige Fry is the Alligator's UF administration writer. Send tips, comments and feedback to [email protected]