Ahmad Awad, incoming co-president of the University of Cincinnati Muslim Student Association (UCMSA) and first-year psychology student, originally spent some of his youth giving back to the Cincinnati community through volunteering as early as 5:30 a.m. at the men's and women's Shelterhouses in downtown Cincinnati. Through the Islamic Center of Greater Cincinnati (ICGC), he was first exposed to Shelterhouse and volunteered for a few months at age 15.
Years later, the Shelterhouses are in a predicament; volunteer numbers have continuously plummeted.
The men's and women's Shelterhouses of downtown Cincinnati struggle each day to support Cincinnati's homeless. However, through the volunteer work of several students of UCSMA, some days are less gloomy and understaffed than others. For some time now, MSA members have been volunteering bi-weekly at the men's house on Mondays at 5:30 a.m. to prepare and serve breakfast for the shelter's clients.
"Our numbers of volunteers have been greatly affected by the pandemic, so it is not nearly as often as pre-COVID. We are still trying to recover from that deficit," said Sarah Burkhart, kitchen manager of the Shelterhouses. "My position as kitchen manager at Shelterhouse marries my passions in life, community and food. I have always found joy in cooking for others so the opportunity to do so with the side effect of potentially making a difference in people's lives was a no-brainer. At my previous job, I spent 10 years trying to brighten the day for thousands of high school students through food. Because food is a universal language, I feel it opens connections with people to make a greater impact than simply filling one's stomach."
For just one of the Shelterhouses, the staff is tasked with preparing 90 meals per month. Coupled with two shelters respectively, Burkhart and very limited kitchen staff prepare and serve about 180 meals per month. Accounting for the percentage of volunteer-prepped meals, less than 10% have any volunteer work involved.
"People are in and out…and with COVID-19 slowing down volunteers, we could use the help," said kitchen staffer Brandon Watkinsin. "I get paid to be here…I like the job for what it does…it gives me a purpose."
That same purpose of helping others is not just within Burkhart and Watkinsin, but also members of UCMSA who often find themselves downtown, to alleviate the pressured staff of the Shelterhouses. "I felt like I needed to help them and get started quickly.", says Salah Adawi, a first-year engineering student. "I think it's a great idea to help a lot of people and to potentially be here as much as possible," a sentiment shared with several other board members of MSA.
"It's a rewarding experience…helps you realize what you are grateful for, and is helpful to those in need," said Ekra Khalid, current co-president of UCMSA and third-year neuroscience student. "MSA targets all, and we represent whole diversity. We want to raise more awareness, and it's very disheartening to see the women's shelter have lower numbers. We hope to split up so both shelters can receive help."
Through MSA, members push to give back to the community, particularly through philanthropy. "Philanthropy is a pillar of our faith, and we do it for the sake of Allah Subhanahu Wa Ta'ala (The most glorified, the most high)," said Laila Shaikh, sister's spiritual chair for MSA and first-year international affairs student.
Although many events many internal events do revolve around Islam and its practice, UCMSA has shown through their philanthropic efforts with the men's and women's shelters a strong desire to step out of their direct religious community to serve a larger overarching community of those in need anywhere, not just Cincinnati.
"An overarching community doesn't matter except for the common goal. Feeding the homeless and giving back to the community is open to anyone who wants to benefit others," says Awad. UCMSA plans to continue a partnership with both Shelterhouses, opening an all-inclusive organization dedicated to multiple meals per week, clothing, and any other ways MSA may be of service. The upcoming club will be known as UC Better Tomorrow (UCBT) in hopes of dispelling the low volunteer numbers the Shelterhouses have experienced and providing new volunteer opportunities to all UC students.
Serving the community does not necessarily mean a grand scale; it could also be lending a helping hand to someone in a bad spot on a dark and gloomy Monday morning. It can be filling a tray with eggs, potatoes and croissants, leaving a happy and appreciative demeanor on a stranger's face.