December 4, 2003

The Gift of Giving

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This is the second in a series on non-profit organizations both at Cornell and in the surrounding Ithaca area.

On any given weekend, Cornell students can be found painting houses, working on nature trails or doing other forms of community service. No, they’re not fulfilling a sentence from the J.A.; they’re volunteers working with OnSite Volunteer Services.

Organization

OSVS is a community-based nonprofit group that organizes and supervises volunteers to work on events and projects held by other nonprofit organizations. It was founded in 1995 by Neil Giacobbi ’96. Giacobbi, who is currently pursuing a Masters in public administration at the Wagner School of Public Service at NYU, says he “didn’t set out to start OnSite Volunteer Services.” Instead, he credits its creation to good luck.

As part of his responsibilities as a Cornell Tradition Fellow, Giacobbi was required to perform a certain amount of community service. To meet that requirement, he volunteered with the Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services, a nonprofit group that works to create affordable housing options for Ithaca residents.

Founder

During his time working with the group, Giacobbi formed an instant bond with John Rogers, one of the supervisors. Giacobbi was occasionally trusted to run a volunteer project on his own if Rogers had to be absent. “It was such an enriching experience for me to help my friends on campus get involved … [and to] develop a relationship with someone in the community,” Giacobbi said. “I felt that if I just graduated and [that experience] went away and was just a good memory, that it wouldn’t be good enough.”

Instead, Giacobbi stayed in Ithaca for three years after graduation, making a full-time job out of forming his own organization, originally called The Partnership because of its close ties with the INHS. His goal, he said, was “to provide students with the opportunity to be employed, to earn a wage [for organizing] volunteer projects for their friends and for people on campus.”

Today, OnSite has 19 paid employees — all Cornell students. They recruit volunteers, coordinate with over 40 local agencies, organize fundraisers and handle all of the other tasks involved in running such an organization. According to Rachel Ruggirello ’04, executive director of OSVS, the group has a yearly budget of about $100,000. This money comes primarily from annual fundraisers like Fall Step and from various grants. Another large fundraiser is held in New York City each year by the group’s Board of Directors.

This seven-member board, which includes founder Giacobbi, is made up of Cornell alumni, most of whom were involved in OnSite while they were at the University. According to Giacobbi, the board “functions more like a managing board of directors, despite the fact that it is located so far away. We’re very involved with staff projects, and help in any way that they need us to,” he explained, adding that being on the Board usually requires a commitment of up to six hours a week.

According to Ruggirello, OnSite also has a local Advisory Council, whose members are often leaders from other community groups, such as the United Way. “[They] meet with us and help us with different aspects of what were doing,” she explained.

What OnSite does is help organize the necessary volunteers for various community projects. These projects can range from trail maintenance at the Cayuga Nature Center to working at the annual Apple Harvest Festival on the Ithaca Commons. According to Ruggica so, the group still dedicates much of its time to working with the INHS, as it has from the beginning.

One recent event that OSVS was involved in was the Kids BookFest. OSVS recruited over 100 volunteers for that event alone. “It’s always a really fun event because you get to hang out with kids,” Ruggirello explained. OSVS works with a variety of volunteers, including students from Cornell, Ithaca College and area high schools, as well as some local residents. However, “most of our pool of volunteers comes from Cornell right now,” Ruggirello said.

Also, the group of volunteers is always changing. “A lot of times the same groups will come back … but it might be different people from the group,” Ruggirello explained. “OnSite is basically here to offer one-time volunteer opportunities. We know that its really hard [for students] to make those [long term] commitments,” she added.

While OnSite’s main goal is to set up projects that meet the needs of the community, they also try to satisfy the wishes of the volunteers. “We offer a wide range of projects,” Ruggirello explained. “If people have a very specific interest, we’ll try our best [to meet it].”

“OnSite makes it easy for us to do service,” said Joseph Cua ’04, philanthropy chair for Tau Beta Pi, the engineering honor society. “We tell them how many people we have volunteering and they set up a place for us to go.” Tau Beta Pi has volunteered at a number of events this year, including the Apple Harvest Festival.

One possible reason for OnSite’s popularity is that so many people benefit through its efforts. “While the community benefits from our services of deploying volunteers, the students who organize it benefit equally by having that experience,” Giacobbi said. “We’ve become a part of the local partnership of nonprofit community agencies, and yet we’re entirely run by Cornell students,” he explained, adding that he was very impressed with how much effort the students put into it.

“All of the people who work here are in charge of managing, directing and supervising other employees, so it’s a really good opportunity also for them to get real world experience,” Ruggirello said. According to her, “OnSite really just wants to encourage students to participate in their communities.” She also stressed that agencies shouldn’t hesitate to call if they need help recruiting volunteers.

For students who would like to get involved, OnSite does volunteer projects on Saturdays and Sundays from 12-4 p.m., and also offers a variety of employment opportunities.

Archived article by Courtney Potts

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