LAFAYETTE — Children’s playgrounds in Lafayette are in desperate need of repair, the city’s landscape projects are incomplete, and some of its streets are littered with piles of trash.
But on Saturday, some of the eyesores around the city should improve when students, staff and faculty at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette take part in The Big Event.
The Big Event is a volunteer-driven community service program for universities like UL-Lafayette. Thousands of UL-Lafayette students, faculty and staff are expected to get to work picking up trash, cleaning up playgrounds and sprucing up the city.
“It’s helping (the students) realize they are a part of the community,” said Dana Berkus, assistant director of UL-Lafayette’s Office of First-Year Experience.
“It makes them feel like they are a part of Lafayette. Right now, they’ve only had that (volunteer) experience in high school, and it’s kind of limited,” she said.
The Big Event began 32 years ago when Joe Nussbaum, then vice president of the Student Government Association at Texas A&M University, envisioned a one-day service project where the university could show its appreciation for local residents by completing projects at their homes.
Since its creation, the event has spread to almost 100 universities across the country, from Auburn University in Alabama to Monmouth University in New Jersey to UL-Lafayette.
Berkus said more than 2,000 students signed up to volunteer and forced organizers to close registration early.
“Usually you have more projects than volunteers,” she said, “so it’s amazing when we don’t have enough assignments for the number of people who have signed up.”
The event is but one in a string of events scheduled for Project Front Yard, a community beautification effort initiated by City-Parish President Joey Durel. Durel started the effort to improve community gateways and streetscapes, to combat litter and to clean up waterways such as the Vermilion River.
“Visitors from out of town notice (the trash),” said Kevin Blanchard, chief development officer for the city-parish. “They notice we don’t take care of our landscape well. You don’t realize how much we have become accustomed to it. We are hoping the event will throw some cold water on everybody.”
Blanchard said another problem is the illegal signs that dominate sidewalk posts and store fronts like overgrown weeds. He said no action has been taken to remove the signs or to go after those who post them.
He said the city-parish lacks the staff to enforce laws on illegal sign placement.
But through The Big Event, about a thousand volunteers will comb the streets and remove signs posted on utility poles or stuck in the ground that have nothing to do with the area in which they’re planted, he said.
Blanchard said part of “Project Front Yard” is to make Lafayette residents realize what is needed to help keep the urban and rural areas beautiful.
To get the point across, volunteers will stuff the litter collected into 8-foot-tall letters — made out of chicken wire — that spell “YARD WORK.” The letters will be displayed in the field in front of the LITE center near Cajun Field throughout the university’s homecoming week, which begins Saturday and ends Nov. 1.
“We are so used to the trash,” Blanchard said. “We are the frog in the cold water that slowly boils and never knows it’s happening. It’s hard to truly show people without some big effort.”