Volunteers recall Austin Cloyd's zeal for service

CHAMPAIGN — When volunteers report for this year's Austin's Day Saturday, Chris Piper, Diana Dudzienski and Josh Smothers will be there.

And they'll bring something in common — a willingness to serve that underlines the annual event that sends student and adult volunteers out into the community to help make it a better place.

Dudzienski, 48, of Champaign, says this will be the fifth time she has volunteered for Austin's Day, which is sponsored by the Centennial High School Interact Club and Champaign Rotary with other local high school Interact students in honor of former Centennial student and Interact member Austin Cloyd.

Miss Cloyd was among the 32 people killed in a shooting at Virginia Tech and was also once a member of Dudzienski's youth group through Champaign's First United Methodist Church.

Dudzienski recalls both Miss Cloyd's own zeal for service, and how she came and visited her in the hospital when she was at her sickest and wasn't expected to survive.

Diagnosed in 2001 with leukemia, Dudzienski says her cancer survival — and all the support she got along the way through her employer (Presence Covenant Medical Center) along with her friends, family and church — has since strengthened her commitment to service.

"I kind of understood better what the people needing help feel," she said.

In addition to her annual Austin's Day service, Dudzienski serves on the board of a domestic violence shelter, mentors a local high school student and helps with a camp for kids with cancer each year in August.

And, she says, "My world is a much better place because of the people I get involved with."

Piper, a 17-year-old Centennial senior, has rung bells for the Salvation Army and helped with such projects as getting needy families gifts for Christmas and collecting jeans for homeless youth and canned food for the hungry.

When two concussions knocked the former football player out of the game for good last year, he also became a student assistant coach for his school team.

His injuries caused him to lose his first semester of school last year, and he could come back for the second semester just half-days, Piper says. After he got back to school, he learned he'd been nominated for the Interact Club.

The club, which does monthly service projects, provided his first real opportunities to do service work, he said.

"I think everyone should try and give back," Piper says. "We're not all in the same position. Some people have more time than others, better financials than others, but we can all do something, whether giving a hand to a neighbor, taking part in a service project or giving a hand to the community."

Smothers, a 26-year-old medical student and Champaign native, hasn't missed an Austin's Day yet, he says. This year, he plans to help out with both that event and a Special Olympics event set for the same day, volunteering at one in the morning and one in the afternoon.

Smothers had already done some volunteer work before the shooting that claimed the life of Miss Cloyd, a former classmate of his. But seeing the community turn out for the first Austin's Day affected him.

"It was very impactful and made me want to volunteer more," he said.

This year's Austin's Day will send volunteers to the Crisis Nursery, the Champaign County Humane Society, Garden Hills Elementary and Jefferson Middle schools, the Center for Women in Transition, Developmental Services Center and Family Service of Champaign County. Some of the jobs they'll be taking on will include mulching dog play areas for the Humane Society, beautifying school grounds and washing vehicles at DSC, says Jeron Blood, a special education teacher at Centennial and sponsor of the school's Interact Club.

Some volunteers will also be sent to the University of Illinois campus to help register participants in the Illinois Science Olympiad, Blood said.

Todd Salen, a Champaign Rotary member long involved with Austin's Day, said participation has grown since this day of service became part of National Volunteer Week and its number of volunteers peaked last year.

About 150 volunteers are needed this year, according to Blood.

Blood recalls not getting too many opportunities to do service work himself until he got to college.

"Getting kids to serve as early as possible is really important," he said.

Miss Cloyd's parents, who live in Blacksburg, Va., alternate each year between coming back to Champaign for Austin's Day and staying home for a memorial for shooting victims there. This year they'll be in Blacksburg for the memorial, said her mother, Renee Cloyd.

That Austin's Day has become so rooted in Champaign-Urbana and that so many get involved in it each year doesn't surprise her, especially since students in the Interact Club are motivated, high-achieving and have a heart for service, Renee Cloyd says.

Still, she says, to have her daughter remembered in this way, "it's quite an honor."

AUSTIN'S DAY

When: 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Saturday

To help: Volunteers are asked to sign up by today. Shifts last 2 1/2 hours (or more if you want)

Go to: austinsday.com

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