LAFAYETTE — It didn’t take long for Banner Driskell to be sold on Lafayette.

The 18-year-old from Port Orchard, Wash., fell in love with what the area had to offer during Festival International de Louisiane in April.

“The culture, the diversity and the appeal of community,” Driskell said. “There’s a real sense of community here that I related to.”

And on Thursday, Driskell started building his own community among 200 other University of Louisiana at Lafayette freshmen.

The group are part of SOUL Camp — an extended orientation experience created by the university last year.

It was designed to broaden students’ awareness of their new community — on and off campus, diversity, leadership and the campus’ own traditions.

The four-day Service, Outreach, Unity, Leadership Camp began Thursday with community service projects at six Lafayette schools.

“It helps you feel like you’re a part of something,” Driskell said during a break from mulching flower beds at the AIM Academy.

The United Way of Acadiana partnered with the camp this year to identify service projects within the Lafayette Parish School System.

Students on Thursday provided painting, landscaping services, clerical work and other duties at six schools: J. Wallace James Elementary, the shared campus of the AIM Academy and Charter High, S.J. Montgomery Elementary, Plantation Elementary, Prairie Elementary, and Woodvale Elementary.

The hands-on projects are ways for the students to “connect and identify with key areas of concern in Lafayette,” said Keler Williams, United Way of Acadiana director of volunteer mobilization.

She said the long-term goal is for the volunteers to remain connected to issues facing education and pursue volunteer opportunities available in schools.

The United Way of Acadiana is a partner in the school system’s volunteer initiative, “100 Plus Ways to Help” which links volunteer talents with school needs.

At the shared Charter High School and AIM Academy campus, teams of students painted exterior walkways; planted shrubs, azaleas and camellias; and prepare beds for AIM Academy students to plant flowers or vegetable once school gets underway.

AIM Academy principal Herb Thayer welcomed the help. The academy houses the district’s discipline program. Thayer said the garden will be used to teach teamwork.

At James Elementary, incoming ULL freshmen John Portwood, 19, of Baton Rouge and Amber Pugh, 18, of Alexandria, both recognized the opportunity the camp offered to forge bonds with new friends while helping out the community.

ULL faculty and staff were learning the same lessons.

Sally Anne McInerny, head of ULL’s mechanical engineering department, was one of several ULL faculty and staff who volunteered with the students Thursday. She joined the university last year.

“It’s a good way to learn about the community,” she said.

She joined students at J. Wallace James Elementary to prune plants.

“The freshmen have so much energy,” she said. “It’s invigorating.”

The camp added perspective to Jeff Fugler’s freshmen year. The business marketing sophomore from New Orleans was part of the first class of SOUL campers. He returned this year as a student mentor working alongside freshmen campers. The camp provides a platform for frank discussions about perceptions, true leadership and the sometimes tough transitions students face, he said.

“It opened my eyes to diversity,” he said of his own camp experience. “Anyone sitting to your left or right could have an amazing story, you just have to ask.”

His advice to the newcomers: “Get involved.”

“We were told almost 80 percent of students who attended SOUL Camp (last year) got involved in one or two organizations,” he said. “That’s impressive.”