University of Iowa students aspire to unite '30,000 Hands' on campus with local needs

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IOWA CITY — An epiphany came to University of Iowa junior Maddie LaPage as she sought a reprieve from the weight of the world.

She is among five UI students who, for a fairly new class challenging them to innovate to make a difference in their community, had met last spring to set in motion their fall curriculum.

They would spend the summer considering what societal problem they aimed to tackle, they agreed, and then reconvene in the new semester to start.

LaPage came up with a environmentally focused pitch. Others had ideas about breast-feeding norms, social injustices and barriers to reporting sexual assault.

But that night after LaPage went home, the day’s weighty conversation proved almost too much for her.

“Her panic attack was, I think, really generated from the fact that she saw all the problems — these immense problems that we face in our world — and it felt overwhelming to her,” said course professor David Gould. “She locked herself in the bathroom to try and make the world a little smaller.”

And while LaPage sat there, Gould said, she drew inspiration.

“On her own, she could really accomplish nothing of monumental value,” he said. “But collectively, we could.”

LaPage shared her story at the next class. Gould said he and her peers were taken aback by her honesty and what seemed like the beginnings of a big idea.

“It had a heartbeat to it,” Gould said.

By semester’s end, the five women — plus two other students — had created something called 30,000 Hands — a website capable of linking the more than 30,000 UI students with local service opportunities.

The goal, according to the student organizers, is twofold: responding to the needs of Iowa City’s nonprofit, charity and social-good organizations, and providing real-life learning opportunities for students looking to try out their marketing, design, writing or research skills.

“With 30,000 Hands, we hope to make a difference, re-imagine experiential learning and redefine the word ‘community,’” according to a mission statement on the new site, which recently went live and will be updated throughout the spring semester.

‘We might become a prototype’

The project aligns with an end-of-semester message UI President Bruce Harreld delivered — one noting new buildings across campus as examples of the generosity the UI has enjoyed, and charging the UI community to give back.

“What’s more important than these buildings themselves is how we use them to interrelate with and assist one another,” he said in the message. “In the end, giving back to make the world a better place is our overarching mission.”

That’s why Linda Snetselaar, associate provost for outreach and engagement, said her office is all about the student-service initiative.

“That project, 30,000 Hands, is a wonderful example of exactly what President Harreld was talking about,” she said.

The initiative has a perfect launchpad in the UI’s Office of Outreach and Engagement, and Snetselaar said the provost’s office plans to support it in multiple ways.

If the effort succeeds in its double-pronged aim of serving the community while providing learning experiences for students, Snetselaar said the model could spread.

“We might become a prototype for things done beyond our state — things that are done nationally,” she said.

‘The students have done a wonderful job’

Senior Sydney Hofferber of Cedar Rapids, one of the 30,000 Hands creators, said that’s the goal. But first they’re focused on reaching out to nonprofits, communicating the needs to the campus and making the operation sustainable.

“Maddie wants to make it a model for other universities,” Hofferber said. “But that can only happen if it works well at ours.”

Among Hofferber’s contributions to the project was her outreach to nonprofits. Four so far have posted projects on the site, including Girls on the Run’s pitch for help making a 10-year anniversary video and its appeal for regular blog contributions.

The Iowa Youth Writing Project wants volunteers for an after-school program with K-12 kids. The Johnson County Crisis Center needs students to help identify and pursue grant opportunities.

Senior Sydney Knox lives with Hofferber and wasn’t enrolled in the “Fieldwork in Social Innovation” course like her roommate. But when the computer engineering major learned the class needed help with the website, she felt it was a perfect fit.

“I was looking for a project where I could gain experiential learning and leave with a meaningful result,” Knox said. “And I view my work with the website as a small example of what 30,000 Hands could do.”

She took the technical lead, writing the software and creating a back end for the site. The site will function around service projects — allowing nonprofits to pitch needs to students and professors, rather than the other way around.

This spring will serve as a beta test, allowing users and the creators to work through potential kinks, Knox said. The goal is to have it fully functional by next fall. Snetselaar said the administration will do what it can to help in that.

“This 30,000 Hands project is beautifully focused on how to help students to realize their dreams,” she said. “The students have done a wonderful job of trying to allow us to look in different ways at things that may have had a lot of social injustice attached to them.”

l Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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