BRUNSWICK — When Bowdoin College opened its doors in 1802, President Joseph McKeen declared that: “… literary institutions are founded and endowed for the common good, and not for the private advantage of those who resort to them for education.”

The rest of the quote further speaks to the president’s ideal of the “common good,” and the obligations of those attending these institutions.

Certainly McKeen would be proud to know that his namesake, the Joseph McKeen Center for the Common Good, provides numerous opportunities for students to engage in activities that benefit the community. One of those, the annual Common Good Day, also provides opportunities for others involved with the college —faculty, staff, and alumni — to do the same.

This year’s Common Good Day on Saturday will find some 500 volunteers spread out to 25 organizations in the greater Midcoast area (and some in Portland), to perhaps paint, or pull weeds, or even file or enter data. A volunteer has no idea where they might land when they sign up.

“We fill out a form, where we might indicate an interest or preference,” said volunteer Jennifer Snow, “but other than that, we don’t really know where we’ll be.” Snow, who works at the college assisting faculty with technology, will participate this year with her 13-year-old son. She’s been at the college for so long, and has participated in so many community activities, she’s not sure if she’s actually participated in the Common Good Day before.

“I’ve cleaned windows—many windows—at the Curtis Library; I’ve helped clean out and organize the attic at Spindleworks … I’m open,” she laughed. “We had no idea what we were going to do when we signed up. I do know that we will be going to the Habitat for Humanity Store, the ReStore, in Topsham, but that’s all I know.”

This is a first foray into community work for Snow’s son, Cal.

“I think it’s a great opportunity for him—and for young people—to give back, and to see that the generosity of people’s time and efforts is to be worthwhile. I’d like him to see the value of that.”

Michele Ober, volunteer coordinator for Habitat for Humanity/7 Rivers Maine and manager of the Topsham ReStore, knows exactly what Snow and her son will be doing on Saturday. Our crew of volunteers will likely be working to process donations, mostly windows and doors, perhaps organizing the stock. We have a backlog, and recently had a huge donation of those items,” Ober said.
Since there is no current home “build site” underway at the moment (one is about to be launched in Bath), the store is the focus. “We have just celebrated 10 years, and we are lucky enough to have a good, strong group of regular volunteers here. But processing donations is time consuming, for example, appliances need to be cleaned and tested, that sort of thing. We pick up donations at least two days a week, and we need to funnel them onto the floor as soon as possible.”

Some Bowdoin students will end up volunteering at land trusts to help maintain trails. Courtesy of Bowdoin College

According to Andrew Lardie, associate director for service and leadership at the center, this is the 19th Common Good Day, and each year there are approximately 50 projects that are tackled, with some agencies hosting multiple projects.

“The event’s origins are murky,” he said, “but it started out with a small band of volunteers inspired by Bowdoin’s tradition of pursuing the ‘common good’ as a fundamental aspect of its operation. Within a few years, it had swelled to include dozens of local agencies.”

The center oversees a variety of community efforts, such as the 37 student-led volunteer groups that work regularly with partner agencies, including providing mentoring in over a dozen local schools. There is the Common Good Grant Program, where students learn over a year’s time the intricacies of nonprofit funding and philanthropy, which results in local organizations receiving much needed grant funding.

Ober says Habitat is “very fortunate to be supported by Bowdoin,” and thinks that community involvement is essential to organizations such as Habitat. “Affordable housing is a basic need, and we all need to be reminded and aware of that.”

Over at the nonprofit College Guild in Brunswick, founder Julie Zimmerman has an afternoon planned for her five volunteers that may be on the quieter side. The College Guild offers non-accredited courses to incarcerated people, and has been doing so for 16 years. They currently have 500 prisoner-students enrolled in courses, and have worked with approximately 6,000 people since their inception.

“Our day will be spent setting up files,” she said, somewhat apologetically. “Not very exciting. But we hope to process 100 applications, which involves handling applications, course lists, moving people on and off the waiting list. It’s just the kind of work that is very difficult to find the time for.”

Zimmerman already has a score of regular Bowdoin student volunteers, but Common Good Day’s focus allows the organization to complete one large task in an afternoon.

College Guild courses run the gamut from writing and sciences to philosophy and art. Zimmerman will first explain to new volunteers what they do, and why it’s important. “I might read some writing from some of our students, so they can see how meaningful the work can be,” she said. Then, it’s the decidedly non-glamorous work of putting labels on folders and updating data.

Other organizations on the receiving end of all this community goodness on Saturday include Freeport Community Services, local libraries, Bath Forestry Committee, Merrymeeting Gleaners, Wolf’s Neck in Freeport, and Harpswell Heritage Land Trust.

“Every year, we invite about 150 agencies to submit a project and new ones are welcome. Project sites need to be within 25 minutes from campus, and the work should keep at least five people busy for three hours.”

For more information, contact Andrew Lardie at 798-4274.