Service projects unite Austinites in weekend of aid

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Hundreds of Austinites participated in a weekend devoted to service a few days before the Thanksgiving holiday. Service Austin takes place the weekend before Thanksgiving every year, and different organizations plan service projects throughout the city. More than 750 registered volunteers contributed to 41 local service projects. Service Austin chair Jeff Blackwelder said he hopes the service event evolves into a well-known tradition for Austin. “In the future, people will eventually come to realize that the weekend before Thanksgiving is the weekend for giving thanks by giving back,” Blackwelder said. Now in its fourth year, the event has more than four times as many projects and volunteers as it did in its first year. Blackwelder said he estimates more than 900 people actually arrived to volunteer to the service projects. “It’s been our experience depending on the weather that more people will show up than actually signed up,” he said. “It’s always doubled in size every year, but this year it exceeded our expectations considerably because we got much better media coverage.” The organizations performed service projects such as cleaning parks and playgrounds, teaching children to read and sorting library books. Blackwelder said he has seen people venture outside their homes for the first time in more than a year-and-a-half, made possible by a Service Austin project that builds wheelchair ramps at homes of the disabled. The Southern Baptists of Texas Convention participated in an event for Austin’s homeless where they brought a truck for showers. More than 30 homeless people received haircuts, massages, food, as well as winter necessities such as extra clothing and blankets behind the Shell gas station at 38 1/2 Street and Interstate Highway 35. Government senior Ellen Muench, who helped the homeless on Saturday, said she volunteers twice a month. The program Saturday encouraged efforts from members of all faiths, she said. “Things are really bad, and you just need to do what you can, regardless of religion,” she said. More than 40 people volunteered at the Austin Fire Department’s training facility sorting uniforms, cleaning the yard and painting. Battalion Chief Thayer Smith said Saturday was the first time a service project was held at their facility, and the work the volunteers performed in one weekend probably would have taken six months for his staff to complete without them. “We were very pleased to have a bunch of extra hands to help us do some of the projects we needed to get done,” he said.