Apathy and sleeping in are particularly endemic of the 18-22 age demographic. This fact made three dozen students gathered by Pismo Pier on a Saturday morning a particularly strange sight — brave souls who answered the Facebook event’s call. Guilt, fulfillment or service hours, the personal bunch gathered around the staging area marked by boxes of latex gloves and trash bags: This was a beach cleanup.
Pismo Beach oscillated: the sun, glazing the beach, was strong for 10 a.m. On the other hand, ocean gusts and waves compelling enough to close off the pier dashed any contemplation of short sleeves. Even so, Pismo Beach was busy.
Townies walked their dogs, and out-of-townies scanned for parking kiosks. Flocks of tiny birds ran up and down with the tide. A biplane momentarily ran off with the beach’s attention as the pilot soared down to touch the unpredictable waves with landing gears, before flying back up.
In the name of Cal Poly’s service organization Student Community Services (SCS), the students hit the beach. Founded in 1972, SCS was created to empower students to empower the community. Students volunteer to advocate for and assist the greater San Luis Obispo area in an array of events organized by members.
For two hours, volunteers combed through the sand. They meticulously worked down the length of the rusted sea wall, collecting bits of styrofoam. Other students had a littered playground surrounded, picking at the dunes as a kid on a swing looked on.
Biological sciences senior Ian Sicher is a bonafide member of SCS. He helped facilitate the beach cleanup. According to him, the turnout was good. Sicher was well-spoken and relaxed, delegating late stragglers. This event wasn’t mandatory, he was just happy to see people who care. Sometimes nobody comes.
The weekend proved to be an active one for SCS, which usually hosts one or two events over the weekends. This time, it hosted four (three on Saturday alone). On behalf of the organization, groups of volunteers assisted in a technology class for elderly, helped at a canine rescue facility and swept Pismo Beach simultaneously.
According to Lead Program Assistant and communication studies senior Danielle Berton, SCS is able to juggle the large volume of events simultaneously because it’s divided into sub-genres, per se. The organization splits into eight subsets, each with a group lead and three members. Each part of SCS handles a different issue that affects the Cal Poly community, and the subsets are able to put on their own events with independent ease.
The eight parts handle empowering the disabled (SSPD), homeless advocation (Beyond Shelter), conservation (Environmental Council), food security awareness (Food Insecurity and Nutrition), animal rehabilitation and assistance (Poly Paws), senior citizens (Senior Services), physical health (Students For Health and Well-Being) and youth support (Youth Programs).
In some cases, SCS offers extra hands to institutions or events already curated by the community.
“We never tell them what they need,” Berton said. “We always try to ask what the (institution’s or organizer’s) needs are.”
Berton fondly remembered the gratifying moment SCS brought volunteers of Grizzly Youth Academy, a military school for at-risk high school-aged youth, located on the California National Guard’s San Luis Obispo base. Naturally, the school is heavily structured with an emphasis on discipline.
They also needed math tutors.
“(The students) were asking me all these questions,” Berton said. “This one girl was telling me that she wanted to be a lawyer because ‘both of my parents are lawyers.’ She was telling me about her career aspirations. These kids really wanted to do good, even though they may have been there for something they may have messed up in — but they were all really excited about their futures.”
Surely the presence of SCS was valued at Grizzly Youth Academy. However, as voluntourism and other symptoms of the white savior complex — the idea that the satisfaction of service is an entirely internalized affair for the volunteer, rather than satisfaction from seeing someone helped — bubble to the surface of society’s cognition. The same lens should be applied to Student Community Services.
“We spend a lot of time working with these things and our criticisms,” Berton said. “Last night we had a two-hour talk about what does service mean? What does volunteering mean?”
SCS, as an organization, is well aware of white saviorism, and that some charitable organizations become stuck in that mud. Programming is intentionally in place to avoid the slippery slope, promote awareness and combat a mentality of pedestal-sitting from entering the equation.
“We talk a lot about privilege,” Berton said. “A big thing we do is define certain terms. Everyone has a different understanding of what social justice is. We have a social justice series every month. The one last night was the ethics of volunteering. Next is the rhetoric of immigrants and how we talk about them.”
Berton smiled to herself as she remembered a pajama movie night coordinated with the Boys & Girls Club of America on campus. Only two kids showed up.
“The kids were really enthusiastic,” she said. “They had no idea that there were supposed to be more people. The kids had the time of their lives; they were making snowflakes and watching movies.”
The event was considered a success despite the small turnout. If that doesn’t pass as a litmus test of sincerity for SCS, what does?
Perhaps the authenticity of SCS comes as the result of the direct, simplistic thought process on which it was founded. In 1972, Pete Evans, then the Associated Students, Inc. (ASI) president, created Student Community Services. To him, the logic was simply a surplus of resources, adjacent to a deficit.
“(My reasoning was) the vast amount of wasted energy and time that Cal Poly students were exhibiting, but they had a huge pool of talent, energy, strength and vitality. You find a lot of people that are just running out of gas or are overwhelmed and they need help,” Evans paused. “I’ve always valued the incredible feeling you get when you help someone else. You can’t buy that. There’s nothing like that. I tried to carry an overabundance of energy to an abundance of need.”
Evans thinks that as long as Cal Poly exists, there will be students in San Luis Obispo with extra time best used in a charitable manner. He stands as a personal example: He primarily devotes his time as an activist in combatting the town from selling out its land to developers.
Student Community Services is more than 40 years old. Its makeup has altered and adjusted to the needs of the era; however, the bottom line remains the same, summarized passionately by Evans:
“If not me, who? If not now, when? You do it and you do it now. Otherwise you’re just kidding yourself. If everyone had that attitude, we’d be working together to fix stuff and it wouldn’t fall on you. It would fall on all of us. It’s the activist in me screaming.”