This summer, President Obama kicked off United We Serve, a national initiative to promote service and involvement in local communities throughout the country. For undergraduates in the School of Social Sciences' Community Service and Leadership Program (CSLP), the initiative is a welcomed plug for the very type of activities they've been actively carrying out for the past three years.  
Co-directed by Jeanett Castellanos and Andrew Gonzales, the academic and service-based certificate program teaches students the value of serving their communities by arming them with effective communication and leadership skills in the classroom, and then sends them out into the OC community to put their skills to work in different service projects. The program trains students in its own unique 3E model of leadership, a reflection of its mission to "equip, empower, and encourage" one another in service to the community. Since its inception in 2006, the program has grown from a small membership of 20 students to 92 last year. Participants have championed and participated in a variety of community activities ranging from environmental clean ups to organizing and helping run various fundraising and support walks for AIDS and cancer research.  
"Almost every week, our students have some type of project going on within the community," says Gonzales.  
Each month throughout the school year, a group of dedicated students travel to HealthBridge Children's Hospital in Orange where they bring smiles to the faces of terminally ill children in the hospice ward by reading and acting out stories, singing songs and making balloon animals with the children. They also work on a monthly basis with the Orange County Rescue Mission preparing and serving food to the homeless and those in residence who are working to get off the streets. The experiences, says Gonzales, are life changing.  
"Our students aren't just doing this work to be able to put it on their resumes," he says explaining that the hospital visits can be quite emotional as students often end up serving as a needed ear for tearful family members eager to share stories of their terminally ill child. The shelter trips, he adds, can prove to be similarly somber, yet uplifting experiences.  
"After preparing and serving food, our students stay to clean up and talk with the people. They take the time to learn about where they've come from and how they ended up where they are. It helps them get over stereotypes and learn compassion in the process of serving."  
Luis Alberto, a recent social sciences graduate, was one of CSLP's inaugural members. Having participated in community service projects throughout his childhood, he wanted to continue service work through his college career at UCI. His parents who immigrated to the U.S. from El Salvador taught him growing up that "even if you don't have much, you can help someone in need." While serving in several key leadership positions with CSLP, Alberto helped Habitat for Humanity build the Orange County Rescue Mission's Village of Hope when the program was just starting. Last month before graduating, he helped organize and put on a resume writing workshop there.  
"Some of the residents were literally jumping out of their chairs with excitement that people were there to listen and help them with career assistance," he says. "Their excitement was incredibly moving, and it made my day knowing that we were ultimately helping people improve their lives. Getting to put to use the professional and leadership skills we learned in the classroom for the betterment of those in our community was a great experience that I'll take with me forever." Now as an alumnus, he hopes to continue impacting his community through a career in the non-profit sector.  
Several more of the programs recent graduates are similarly looking to continue working with their communities as they go on to graduate school and professional careers.  
"When it comes to community service," says Gonzales, "it doesn't always take a particular skill set or ability, just the heart to show up and be there for those you serve."  
In addition to monthly service work, CSLP sponsors three large scale projects throughout the year including a toy drive done in partnership with Samaritan's Purse; a mega drive to collect food, clothing, books and toys for local homeless shelter residents; and a student designed project that changes from year to year.  
Learn more about their activities and opportunities to get involved at

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