Op-Ed: First Pioneer Pitch-In shows the best of UC and neighboring areas

Mickale Thompson, Staff Writer

 The first Pioneer Pitch-In took place on Aug. 26 and the new event brought excitement, growth and purpose, which highlights what it means to be a Pioneer. 

The goal of Pioneer Pitch-In is to give first-year students immersive experiences through service projects as they transition into life at Utica College and become introduced to more diverse experiences and people. 

 About 28 non-profit organizations and entities from the Utica community benefited from the day-long projects. These agencies included the Utica Zoo, ICAN, The Root Farm, Empower Pathways and Handshake City. 

This gave first-year students a chance to get involved and see the community in which they will spend four years of their lives and create memories that will last a lifetime. 

Seeing the residents go to Pioneer Pitch-In was exciting because it was a good opportunity for them to meet off-campus resources and incoming peers,” Area Coordinator Katie Peltz said. 

Seeing them get involved in the community as a group is important to me because it gave them a chance to explore the area and make friends while giving back to the Utica area.

I had the opportunity to be a part of the Pioneer Pitch-In and work as a mentor to students. I also have the opportunity to do community work with Handshake City, which was founded by Justin Parkinson and Katie Reilly, who are both members of the Utica community. 

Parkinson and Reilly, with help from the community members, transformed a vacant parking lot into a place that people can enjoy. The place has evolved over the years and serves as a beacon for the community. Handshake City is host to many events, such as free yoga classes, touch trucks, concerts and many more that bring families and the community together and showcases the best of Utica College. The city is also home to many astounding works of graffiti art.

My experience helping Handshake City was one I will never forget. We all came together to prepare the area of their upcoming event and painted tables and a stage. Despite the extreme heat, the comradery of the students and the members of the organization made the experience enjoyable because we all wanted to be there and get to know not only our community, but each other as well. Our energy didn’t just stop at the site, we went out into the downtown Utica area to put up posters. This gave us a chance to see more of the community and learn more about what makes Utica so special. 

We went into various stores, hair salons, restaurants and even a bar to put up posters and to engage with community members. Some had never heard of Handshake City before and were amazed that it was just a few minutes away. It puts things into perspective as to what a community really is and why hard work, dedication and support are all elements that showcase what the people and their community are made of. My experience at Handshake City wasn’t the only one that was great. 

Some others felt the same way, including mentor Katelyn Calkins who volunteered at Grace Church in Downtown Utica. She spent a large part of the day with children between 3 and 16 years old. 

“We did different activities like a scavenger hunt, learned how to play the ukulele and did a dance lesson,” Calkins said. “We also helped out with a couple of labor-heavy activities that the women at the church needed some help with. I think that going and working with the students was really important to them.”

According to Calkins, being a Pioneer Pitch-In mentor was an experience that made her a better student. Being able to give back to her community and encouraging her team of students to get involved in the community was enjoyable. Making connections with other students that she may not have met before this experience was an important part of this experience to Calkins. 

The Pioneer Pitch-In has created a new tradition at Utica College. It has given students a chance to make a difference in their community that will last not only a day, but a lifetime. That is what makes Utica College and the Utica community so special. We keep improving, keep growing and never standing still. 

“I never knew much about Utica until this program and I learned about the several organizations that give Utica residents opportunities to learn about their community and gain insight about where they are attending college,” mentor Gigi Demir said.