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Performances, fundraisers and bath bombs: Duke’s student service groups get creative to help the community

Duke's chapter of Simple Charity has three main goals: fundraising for charities, growing spiritually together in community and advocacy through student-written blogs. Courtesy of Andrew Lee.
Duke's chapter of Simple Charity has three main goals: fundraising for charities, growing spiritually together in community and advocacy through student-written blogs. Courtesy of Andrew Lee.

From performing the Charlie Brown theme song at a nursing home to helping middle schoolers make DNA structures out of clay, Duke is home to many different student service groups in a variety of categories.

Some groups, such as Duke eNable and Pancakes for Parkinson’s, are health-oriented, while youth-centered service groups like Bull City Scholars and Camp Kesem work with children. There are also hunger- and homelessness-focused groups like Habitat for Humanity and Challah for Hunger, as well as other miscellaneous service groups like Special Olympics College, Duke PAWS and Duke Rotaract. 

Harmonies for Health is one of the multiple health-focused groups. The group was started in 2015 and is dedicated to bringing a musical experience to the Durham community. This usually comes in the form of 15 to 20 weekly volunteers performing for residents in assisted living or nursing homes, according to co-president Adam Lin, a senior.

“A lot of people in Harmonies for Health do play instruments, but there are also plenty of members who just really like to help out, to volunteer, or would like to get experience working in a nursing home,” Lin said. “And this is a great way for them to see what’s interesting for them.”

One of Harmonies for Health’s previous initiatives was volunteering at the Durham Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in 2020. However, the group had to transition to Zoom performances due to COVID-19 concerns. Members played their instruments safely from their homes, and residents of the nursing home listened in via iPads.


Annalist Bracher performs for nursing home residents through Harmonies for Health. Photo courtesy of Adam Lin.
Annalist Bracher performs for nursing home residents through Harmonies for Health. Photo courtesy of Adam Lin.


“That was an experience for us, since I think most of us were really used to performing in person, but it still gave us the opportunity to interact with patients in some way,” Lin said. “We are really excited to be returning to in-person volunteering this semester.”

Currently, Harmonies for Health is starting a new initiative in Rosedale Village, a retirement community in Durham. They perform live at the memory support center and assisted living buildings.

Performing for the residents is Lin’s favorite part of being in Harmonies for Health, as it gives him a reason to play his instrument. 

“I'm a piano player, but I'm not super involved otherwise in playing an instrument on campus. So this is an opportunity for myself to destress and also express myself through music while helping to make people's days a little brighter,” Lin said.

Lin said that residents are usually very excited to see the group and have the performance dates marked on their calendars. 

Harmonies for Health has a wide repertoire, performing classical, pop, folk or any other music that the residents enjoy, such as popular ‘70s and ‘80s songs. Sometimes they even receive requests. For example, one patient at the Durham Nursing and Rehabilitation center regularly asks for the Charlie Brown theme song, Lin said.

“I think that getting involved as a volunteer is really important and honestly really fulfilling as an experience,” Lin said. “Helping out in a nursing home or any sort of place where people are living is a really big way of doing that.”

Serving the community through faith: Simple Charity

Another student service group on campus, Simple Charity, is a faith-based service organization affiliated with a larger nonprofit of the same name. According to its president, senior Andrew Lee, the Duke campus chapter has three main goals: fundraising for charities, growing spiritually together in community and advocacy through student-written blogs

Duke's chapter of Simple Charity hopes to engage in conversation with Duke’s campus about global poverty by fundraising for charities that fall into five categories identified as “cause areas” of poverty: health, education, safety, capital and ministry. For example, one week the club might fundraise for Blessings International, which provides medical supplies for clinics in remote areas, and another week they might support Asia’s Hope, which cares for orphans and vulnerable children in Cambodia, Thailand and India.  

The current model of Duke’s chapter involves the club raising money and sending it to charities through the larger Simple Charity organization. Although this model makes the student club feel less connected to the charities, it prevents the charities from feeling a burden to send updates or impact reports to the student club and allows the club to support them freely, Lee said.


Members of Simple Charity at a tabling event. Courtesy of Andrew Lee.
Members of Simple Charity at a tabling event. Courtesy of Andrew Lee.


So far, Duke Simple Charity’s fundraising has been pretty small-scale because it is a young organization with just over 10 members. However, they have had success with their regular Panda Express fundraiser, which raises anywhere from $80 to $180, and with their Insomnia Cookies fundraiser, which allowed them to donate around $400 to Cure for AIDS. The group also runs a Giving Tuesday campaign and switches between fundraising via social media and in person.

For one of Simple Charity’s 2022 Giving Tuesday campaigns, Lee set a goal to individually raise $2,022. He decided to create money milestones—for example, he let people paint his nails when he raised $100, but after he raised $1,600, he had to go a little more out of his comfort zone.

“I had to wear a Psyduck Pokémon onesie and then table outside on [Bryan Center] Plaza with a sign that said, ‘Ask about my foot massages.’ It was a little embarrassing,” Lee said. “But I had a friend sit with me, so that helped to ease the pain, and then it was just fun.”

Similar to Harmonies for Health, Simple Charity encountered some obstacles during Lee’s sophomore year when COVID-19 closed down campus. Right before spring break in 2020, the almost-two-year-old club was beginning to gain momentum with more students becoming engaged and feeling a sense of belonging, Lee said. After the club returned to campus the next fall, they tried to have weekly Zoom meetings, virtual game nights and online fundraisers, but it wasn’t the same.

“I think the community part took a little bit of a hit, but we still tried to do things,” Lee said. “We usually do a retreat every year, and so we were able to do a virtual 'journey of generosity' retreat. And that was really cool because people were willing to come out and drop by at certain hours during that day. It was nice to get to do that together.”

One of Lee’s favorite parts of Simple Charity is its Christian foundation. The faith-based aspect of Simple Charity is the primary reason he joined in his first year at Duke. 

Lee remembers going to a Simply Charity interest meeting, where founder Brian Grasso, Trinity ‘18, was sharing the mission statement, which back then began with “compelled by God’s grace … we help our neighbors.”

“And I think that really resonated with me because I was thinking back to my high school days, and I was like, ‘Wow, my service stuff was a lot about looking good for college apps,’” Lee said. “But I just felt like such a pure heart, just compelled by God's grace. That's why we do what we do. And I think we really try to stay to that core.”

Overcoming Zoom gloom with hybrid, hands-on activities: FEMMES+

Duke FEMMES+, Females and Allies Excelling More in Math, Engineering, and Science, is an educational outreach program partnering with schools in the Durham area. Volunteers lead students in engaging, hands-on STEM activities such as building boats and making bath bombs.

Senior Angela Guan, co-program director of FEMMES+, said the club has existed since 2008 and predominantly serves six elementary schools in the Durham community. It also has some programming directed towards middle and high schoolers.


Members of FEMMES+ lead students in engaging, hands-on STEM activities. Photo taken pre-COVID. Photo courtesy of Melanie Pierce.
Members of FEMMES+ lead students in engaging, hands-on STEM activities. Photo taken pre-COVID. Photo courtesy of Melanie Pierce.


FEMMES+ has an executive board of 18 students, which includes administrative roles that oversee individual club aspects such as planning, programming, creating activities and coordinating with the Durham schools.

“It’s a pretty big organization with a lot of moving parts,” Guan said. According to Guan, FEMMES+ has about “100 to 150, maybe even 200” volunteers, depending on the year.

Guan said FEMMES+ has seen smaller involvement due to COVID-19, with around 100 members across all of its programming. When Duke’s campus initially shut down, the club met on Zoom to engage virtually with the students after school through interactive videos, computer games and PowerPoint presentations.

However, the students’ parents were worried that their children were on Zoom for too long each day, since school was already on Zoom.

“That's a lot of Zoom for a fourth grader, to have an entire school day on Zoom and then another hour afterwards doing activities with us,” Guan said. “So we saw our numbers drop a lot.”

This year, the FEMMES+ executive board members have been able to transition to more adaptive and innovative methods of incorporating hands-on activities, even through Zoom. They packaged materials they would normally take to the schools and then hosted pickup days for parents to collect the programming supplies that their kids could play with at home. Virtual activities then included making parachutes and building DNA ladders with clay. 


FEMMES+ predominantly serves six elementary schools in the Durham community. It also has some programming directed towards middle and high schoolers. Photo courtesy of Melanie Pierce.
FEMMES+ predominantly serves six elementary schools in the Durham community. It also has some programming directed towards middle and high schoolers. Photo courtesy of Melanie Pierce.


Guan’s favorite memory with FEMMES+ was hosting an in-person summer camp at Duke two years ago. The camp was a week long, and each day was packed with five or six different activities, which is typically the same amount of activities the club does over an entire semester.

Guan said it was a really long, tiring and hot week but also one of the most involved and fulfilling times she’s experienced with the club. 

“We basically do what we do during the semester, but on steroids,” Guan said. “We did this one activity with bottle rockets, where we were exploring this chemistry concept, and it was just really fun to see the girls be so excited when a bottle would fly up in the air.” 

Guan said FEMMES+ was started by a group of female students around 2008. When Guan was in elementary school, she lived in Chapel Hill and attended a summer camp hosted by FEMMES+. As one of the pioneer students in the program, she has enjoyed seeing how it has grown from when she was a kid. 

“I just thought that college students were my biggest role models ever,” Guan said. “And I think in a lot of public schools, you don't get a lot of exposure to STEM fields as an elementary schooler. So learning engineering and tech and science at such a young age I think was really fun and definitely inspired me.”

At the end of the semester, FEMMES+ sends out post-program surveys, and Guan said it was very evident that there are a lot of people positively impacted by the club’s service. Parents indicate every year on the surveys that their kids have an increased interest in math and other STEM fields because of the FEMMES+ programming. 

“Parents are always like, ‘Please do this more, like our kids love this,’” she said. “And we also see a lot of participants come back year after year. So I think that means that they enjoy our program.”


Photo taken pre-COVID. Courtesy of Melanie Pierce.
Photo taken pre-COVID. Courtesy of Melanie Pierce.

Alison Korn

Alison Korn is a Pratt sophomore and enterprise editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.

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