Take a group of eager Marshall students brimming with enthusiasm and mindful of the needs of others, pair them with cash- and staff-strapped nonprofit agencies and community groups, and you have the essence of the recently reconfigured Office of Community Engagement, presided over by its charismatic coordinator, Elizabeth Sheets.
It’s not a new office, Sheets confirms. It’s been around for years as part of the Office of Student Affairs. But last summer it was given a full-time focus and renamed to reflect the office’s emphasis. “Basically I’m a clearinghouse working with agencies that contact our office when they’re in need of volunteers. Sometimes they need help on a regular basis and sometimes it’s for an upcoming event. I pair them with students who have offered to do volunteer work after I’ve assessed their interests. I also deal with students who need to work off volunteer hours because they’ve violated the Marshall code of conduct.” And Sheets has compassion for the students who have been assigned volunteer work. “I’ve found that students who violate the code aren’t bad people, they’ve just made poor choices. I work with them and encourage them to get their obligation done quickly.” And for some who have gotten off on the wrong foot, volunteerism has actually proved to have some surprising rewards. For instance, “One student worked with the Big Brother/Big Sister organization and continued to work there after their service requirement was over because it was such as good experience.”
The need for volunteers is great in the community, she says, and it’s important to get the word out to potential volunteers. Each week she sends out an e-mail blast listing upcoming events and agencies that are requesting help. There’s a plethora of groups that seek aid, she says, groups that run the gamut from the Literacy Council, Huntington’s Little Victories no-kill animal shelter and Dress for Success, to special events such as relief aid for victims of Katrina and the Haiti earthquake. Last September Marshall joined colleges across the country in a Day of Service on September 11 to remember and honor those who lost their lives in the terrorist attacks in 2001. And every September there’s a Volunteer Fair that invites agencies to come to the Huntington campus to meet with students in an informal setting. “We had 15 groups that came last year to explain what their needs are. I signed up 25 students myself, so we considered it to be a very successful event.”
Volunteering helps Marshall give back to the community, but there is always more to be done, she believes. “ The most enjoyable thing I do at Marshall is work with students. When I was in Student and Legal Aid I worked with students who needed help. We had a project where attorneys did pro bono work and students could ask them legal questions. My husband, Scott, an attorney, has been a tremendous help as well. Like me, he enjoys working with students and he’s answered a lot of questions for me.”
She’s always gratified when students readily step up to furnish needed support. Time and again, when an agency has voiced an urgent need there are volunteers ready to take on the challenge. In addition, Marshall has honorary organizations whose chief focus is service and Sheets regularly works with members to team them with worthwhile projects.
And in the case of Elizabeth Sheets, It’s a case of “do as I do,” because she has a long history of volunteerism and can approach it from the perspective of someone who’s “been there, done that.” With three degrees from Marshall--an undergraduate degree in marketing, a two-year degree in Legal Assisting, and a master’s degree in history--she even wrote her M.A. thesis on the Junior League, an organization for young women whose members are dedicated to the service of others. Titled ”Dispelling the Debutante Myth: The Junior League Answers the Call of the Nation,” her study detailed the efforts of the members who belonged during the Depression years through the end of World War II. “Some people think the League is fluff, but the members are so hard working,” Sheets, who is a longtime member, says. “It is absolutely amazing what these women managed to do during such a difficult time in our nation.”
That tradition of service was basically what led her to join because the Junior League requires each member to put in multiple volunteer hours. “My first placement was with the Ronald McDonald House, which was such a rewarding experience,” she recalls. And not even a momentous personal event-- her wedding day-- got her off the hook with this dedicated group. By coincidence her wedding coincided with the gigantic annual rummage sale the League used to sponsor in Huntington and, wedding or not, she was expected to furnish her quota of sale items, which she did. “They did let me off from working the sale, however,” she says, laughing. Today, as a sustaining member she’s active in their Garden Club. To add to that, she’s a member of the Board of Directors of the Huntington Museum of Art where she’s been a long-time volunteer. In 2006 she took on the daunting task of chairing their annual Museum Ball, a fundraiser that sold out with 348 guests and raised a record $74,000. The event was an exhaustive undertaking, but “it was a labor of love; I loved every minute of working on it,” she says.
Sheets' considerable talents also extend to her home life, where she’s a self-described detail person, “I’m very organized,” she admits. That attention to detail paid off when she and Scott, also a Marshall grad, and their now three-year-old daughter, Abigail, moved into their new Colonial Williamsburg-style home in the Southeast Hill section of Huntington. Finding the house, so authentic looking it could blend in seamlessly with other homes in the historic Virginia city, was a dream come true for the couple, who had been searching for the style of house they had come to love. “Scott attended William and Mary Law School in Williamsburg and it’s one of our favorite places to visit. The house was a rare find; there aren’t many like it in Huntington,” she says. Sheets did all of the interior design herself. Because she had been visualizing for years what she wanted the interior to look like, and had in fact been purchasing and storing furniture all along, the couple ended up buying only two new pieces of furniture. They added their own unique touches, which included some remodeling and replacing the entire kitchen, which was shut down for four months. How did they manage for this period of time? “Lots of microwave, the refrigerator and take-out,” she quips. But the home turned out so well the Autumn 2011 issue of Huntington Quarterly magazine paid the Sheets the high tribute of devoting eight pages of glossy photographs and accompanying text to their home, showcasing Elizabeth’s flair for color and design, and the couple’s shared efforts to create unique living areas carved from unconventional outdoor space.
The exquisitely decorated and landscaped house is perfect for entertaining, and the Sheets take full advantage of its amenities to have guests frequently. She can put together a sit-down dinner for 12 with practiced ease. Fortunately the couple shares cooking chores, each with a preference which, happily, mesh perfectly. “Scott does the everyday cooking. He really likes doing it; he finds it relaxing. I’m what I call the ‘creative cook.’ I love to try new recipes; I like to make my own bread from scratch. I’ll go through recipe books and magazines to find something interesting and I’m not afraid to try it even when we have guests. I’m not interested in cooking everyday meals, but Scott is, so it works out perfectly. ”
If the Sheets share a passion beyond family and friends, it has to be golf. They’re one of those couples that can hit the links together and still be on speaking terms when they’re done. “We actually love golfing together; we’re very compatible,” she explains. They were members of their church’s handbell choir for several years but are currently taking a temporary “Abigail break” to spend more time with her. And with Abigail in mind, Elizabeth has taken up scrapbooking, creating memories to share with her as she grows up. Add to that a book club which meets regularly, and you can see how her considerable organizational skills come into play, juggling family, work, volunteerism and some welcome, if limited, leisure time. In many ways she sees her job as simply an extension of her own life.
“I have always enjoyed meeting people and I plan to go out and meet people even more than in the past. I see that as part of my job. We can’t promise we’ll always have students to fill all the needs but we’re building a database so we’ll know not only what agencies are out there but what their needs are, both current and ongoing. Having worked in the community is a huge help. There’s so much to be done and this is a way for Marshall to serve. Marshall needs the community and vice versa. Helping others makes for a feel-good job. You come to work happy.”
|Return to newsletter front page.|
The Office of University Communications publishes the e-newsletter, "We Are...Marshall" for the university community.
To suggest a story idea, please contact the editor, Pat Dickson, on the South Charleston campus. The current issue contains the deadline date for the next issue.
To read the newsletter online for issues prior to May 6, 2010, you need the Adobe Acrobat Reader.