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The members of Ignite Serves group 26 connected on campus and performed service at Dogwood Elementary School in South Knoxville.

This week, hundreds of students started their time at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, in true Volunteer spirit: serving the community through Ignite Serves, a four-day leadership and service experience.

Each year, the Clay and Debbie Jones Center for Leadership and Service hosts Ignite, an extended orientation program in which students participate in leadership development activities, build friendships, learn about UT traditions, connect with mentors, and take part in service projects around Knoxville. A tradition since 2001, Ignite typically offers four variations throughout the summer: Ignite Summit, Ignite Outdoors, Ignite Knox, and Ignite Serves. This year, the program went through major adjustments in response to the coronavirus.

With new guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Jones Center staff worked quickly and creatively to craft a safe and exciting version of the beloved program.

“There was a clear demand from students itching for an opportunity to connect with peers and be a part of something bigger than themselves,” said Cierra Burnett, the center’s leadership coordinator. “We knew we had to find a way to make sure Ignite continued, but only if we could do so safely.”

Ignite members dance as they wear masks
Students had been itching for an opportunity to connect with peers and be a part of something bigger than themselves.

The socially distanced adaptation of Ignite was reduced from nearly 500 participants to around 250. Students were divided into 32 small groups made up of two Ignite team leaders and eight first-year participants. Each small group remained together for the duration of the week. Masks were required, with daily temperature checks and health screenings in addition to increased sanitation.

Group 26 did landscaping—general cleanup and planting bushes and trees—at Dogwood Elementary School in South Knoxville. “I wanted to be a part of and serve my new community,” said Amelia Wilkinson of Springfield, Tennessee. “It taught me how to work with new people. I’d never done anything like that before. It was good to step out of my comfort zone.”

Amy Gilmore holds the group 26 stuffed animal mascot, Dice Roll 26, named after their favorite motion of rolling the dice.
Amy Gilmore holds the group 26 mascot, Dice Roll 26, named after their favorite motion of rolling the dice.

Other groups painted a fence and a porch at Hope Central in the Parkridge community, cleaned vases and tools at a Random Acts of Flowers facility, and did general cleanup at Zoo Knoxville, the Knoxville Botanical Gardens, and Odd Fellows Cemetery. Teams wrote letters to residents of the John T. O’Connor Senior Center who have been isolated from loved ones, brushed up the database of educational information on various waterways for Explore Tennessee River Valley, made welcome signs for Adrian Burnett and Bearden Elementary Schools, and wrote letters to the teachers at those schools offering encouragement in the difficult weeks ahead.

Emily Morgan, a sophomore from Memphis, was a team leader for Group 19, which bleached and washed a stage and swept out and washed a van for Water Angel Ministries, an agency serving homeless and at-risk populations. “The most important thing about the program is that we are connecting students to our values from the Torchbearer Creed as servant leaders,” said Morgan. “Starting off on a foot like that can set you up for success in your college career.”

Students interested in getting involved with the Jones Center for Leadership and Service can visit its website to learn more about leadership and service opportunities.