Shining Knights

Giving back to the community on a Saturday morning—UCF style.

Volunteering takes many forms—helping build a house for a veteran, feeding the homeless, packaging recycled soap to be sent to Third World countries, sprucing up landscaping at a daycare. 

The only real requirement is that one be generous in spirit. Yet, I have the feeling that people sometimes shy away from volunteering because they’re afraid they might not do something just right—whether hammering a nail straight or planting an azalea deep enough or packing a food box according to instructions.

Or, in the case of working with special-needs individuals, they might think: How should I act? What should I say? 

Maybe we worry too much. Almost always, it’s just enough to be there. And simply be yourself.

That was certainly the case during Abilities Field Day, part of the annual Knights Give Back volunteer event at the University of Central Florida. On a Saturday in October, more than 1,000 students and alumni fanned out to help with projects at 24 local sites, from the Community Food & Outreach Center to  Orlando Day Nursery. 

The Abilities event was held at the university’s track and soccer field and matched autistic individuals ages 2 to 30 with UCF students and alumni for several hours. Areas manned by students were set up offering basic but fun activities ranging from throwing a Frisbee to running a 25-yard sprint to simply tossing a ball into a storage bin. It was up to the visitors to proceed at their own pace, accompanied by their new UCF friends, so that the experience wouldn’t be overwhelming. If a participant wanted to stay at the playground parachute for an hour, that was fine. If he or she wanted to walk around the track for a half-hour enjoying popcorn or a snow cone, so be it. 

“It’s allowing these kids to have fun on their own terms without the sensory overload and environmental pressures that can happen with a traditional field day,’’ said Christa Bergquist, the UCF student who originated the field day event last year and directs the Different Abilities program for Volunteer UCF, the university’s umbrella volunteer group. 

And so there were plenty of smiles. “Are you ready to have fun?!’’ one UCF student asked enthusiastically as she greeted her new friend. “Ever play kickball?’’ another asked his companion. Nearby, three students sat in a circle with a toddler and tossed a ball. In the distance, a boy smiled broadly as he kicked a soccer ball past his buddy into the net. 

Meanwhile, Facebook friends were made, selfies were snapped, photos were posted on Instagram. 

For Anne Dolmovich, a senior from Jacksonville majoring in nursing, the best part of the day was when a 6-year old boy took her hand in his. 

“It was just the feeling that I was being accepted that was amazing,’’ she said. “He had just met me and he already trusted me.’’ 

Trust and acceptance were in abundance at this festival of volunteerism. No experience required.

“I think the important thing is to remember why you’re there,’’ Dolmovich said. “If you are trying, if you are doing what you can to give back to help people’s lives, that’s all that matters.’’

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