SMC staff, students give back during annual Rake a Difference campaign

CASS COUNTY — Three Southwestern Michigan College teams totaling 12 people Nov. 12 joined hundreds of area volunteers helping seniors in Berrien, Cass and Van Buren counties rake and bag leaves and clean gutters as part of United Way’s 10th annual “Rake A Difference.”

The service on a frosty morning was provided free of charge to seniors 60 and older who are unable to perform yard work and can’t afford to pay for services. Seniors are helped on a first-come, first-served basis, depending on the number of volunteers available.

“Every year, we receive an outpouring of thanks from seniors who are helped by our ’Rake a Difference’ event. It means so much to them that volunteers do the hard work of raking their yards and cleaning their gutters,” said Anna Murphy, United Way of Southwest Michigan president. “Likewise, our volunteers love creating such meaningful impact in our community.”

When Keigh-Cee Bell, tutoring services coordinator, received an email seeking volunteers, she replied, “Throw me on a team,” which rewarded her with a scenic, sun-dappled view of Cobert Lake in Edwardsburg along with Rachel Breden from marketing, Andrew Wright from the business office and Patrick Chenault from financial aid.

Bell usually avoids yard work because she is allergic to freshly-cut grass, but she made an exception for this charitable cause.

Assistant Director of Campus Life Branden Pompey led Ben Spencer from admissions, Courtney Hemenway from first year experience, Building and Grounds Administrative Assistant Andrea Swartz and Dean of Student Development Katie Hannah in a pun contest — “Rakey Breaky Heart” by Billy Ray Cyrus, the 1985 a-ha hit, “Rake On Me,” “Don’t Go Raking My Heart” by Elton John with Kiki Dee and Eddie Money’s “Rake Me Home Tonight” — presumably followed by refreshments at “Raker’s Rhapsody” in downtown Dowagiac after tidying yards on McCleary and Helena streets.

“They were psyched,” Pompey recalled about the Educational Talent Search team, which convened on busy E. State Street in Cassopolis. “I accepted the supplies from United Way, and they immediately contacted me the same day because they wanted to pick them up and start planning.”

The ETS trio was excited because, for two of them, it promised adventure, plus a new way to collaborate with United Way.

Team leader Ally Harris, who joined SMC last summer as an outreach advisor for Edwardsburg and Brandywine students, lives in an apartment that handles leaf removal.

Bethani Eichel, tutor-mentor coordinator, relies exclusively on a leaf-blower.

“I don’t rake,” Eichel said, “but this is such a good cause I borrowed a rake.”

“We’ve never worked with United Way this way before,” Eichel added, referring to last July’s virtual community service summer camp, goLEAD (Leadership, Education and Development) for middle schoolers. The St. Joseph-based agency provided Volunteer Engagement Director Debbie Ramirez as a resource person.

ETS Director Maria Kulka, not only “actually rakes,” but “I have a two-acre yard out where I live in Jones.”

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