Student celebrates birthday with 30 days of service

Melissa Sullivan completed the project for the second year this September

Student celebrates birthday with 30 days of service

Melissa Sullivan distributes hot food to homeless residents of the District.

Service to others has always been an integral part of life for Melissa Sullivan, a senior in the School of Public Affairs, who conducted 30 days of consecutive service this September as part of her “30 days of service” project.

Sullivan first started the project last year to celebrate her 30th birthday in a positive light, during which she partnered with many nonprofit organizations in the city and tracked daily service activities she conducted with a spreadsheet that she shared with all her friends to embrace her passion for service.

“I started brainstorming and thinking about ‘how can I really make this a celebration and help others?’ and that’s something that is very important to me,” Sullivan said. “So, I wanted to celebrate others while also celebrating a very important milestone.”

Sullivan said that the idea of service had been instilled in her from a very young age by her mother, who was constantly volunteering. Outside of school, a lot of Sullivan’s time has gone towards volunteering in the past several years.

“I always thought it was important, even if you didn’t have much you could give monetarily or financially, that if you saw a need, you should step in and take on that duty and that responsibility,” Sullivan said.

The first major service initiative Sullivan organized was during high school when she recruited friends and family to support troops overseas, sending about 5,000 care packages to soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Volunteering for service members still remains an area she cares deeply about, Sullivan said.

“I have been involved with many organizations over the years, but my passion primarily is volunteering for veterans or military organizations and also for people experiencing homelessness or hunger,” Sullivan said. “Those are two of my biggest passions.”

During her 30 days of service this year, Sullivan volunteered locally with various nonprofits, including Honor Flight and A Wider Circle, as well as running service activities separate from organizations, including distributing hot food to homeless individuals at the Edward R. Murrow Park in D.C., even going so far as cooking for people’s personal preferences.

“I like the flexibility of that, of not having to go through an organization and really being able to provide them something they wouldn’t necessarily get otherwise, especially with the cuisine,” Sullivan said. “So a lot of people have really appreciated that and it made them feel like we really care about them and we want to make them happy.”

Last year’s project had also been an unforgettable experience, and Sullivan was able to spread the word about it through posting photos from each day of service on social media and getting friends involved in supporting it, she said. Being able to make someone else smile is a great feeling, Sullivan said.

“Seeing someone smile and knowing that someone’s day is a little brighter, may be it’s not a solution and they are still going to have challenges or hardships after I have served them the meal and spoken to them about their service, but at least I know that for maybe five minutes or ten minutes, or for that meal that day, they felt appreciated,” Sullivan said. “For me, that’s worth it, and it’s important, and if that’s what I can do, I’m happy to do it.”

But, at the end of Sullivan’s project last year, she stopped volunteering for several months after being assaulted by another volunteer during her service work. Deciding to do the project again has been part of her healing process and quest to regain her footing following the assault and subsequent criminal trial, she said.

“I wanted to continue that positivity and spirit of giving back that I created last year that was so successful, but I was also a little bit worried because I hadn’t really volunteered since the assault,” Sullivan said. “I ultimately decided that a way to get back into that positivity and do good for others and take some of the focus off of the pain and negative feelings associated with the assault was to go back to the positivity again.”

At the time of her assault a year ago, Sullivan was volunteering at Martha’s Outfitters, a branch of the non-profit Martha's Table in D.C., an organization she had been volunteering with for the previous five years, she said. The incident left her in complete shock because she never imagined anything like that could happen in a place so familiar to her, making her a lot more cautious about her surroundings today, she said.

“I truly feel like my passion in life is to help others and people who are in need,” Sullivan said. “So I was really conflicted because I thought, ‘Well, if this is my passion and purpose, how can something so horrible happen while I’m doing this?’”

Sullivan said her biggest challenge has been making sense of the situation and finding peace. The criminal trial that followed the assault took a heavy toll on her, especially having to face her assailant in court and experiencing multiple delays in her case. But the guilty verdict that came in the end has given her some level of satisfaction and ability to move on, she said.

Sullivan’s family and the AU community have been great support systems for her, especially Sara Yzaguirre, the coordinator for Victim Advocacy Services at the University, through whom she learned about the Network for Victim Recovery of DC, and her academic advisor, helping her maintain focus and do well academically during the past year, Sullivan said.

By volunteering every single day in September for a second year, Sullivan has been able to help others and also herself. She is happy to be graduating in December and starting a new chapter of her life, one that will definitely include more service work, Sullivan said.

“In choosing to do the project again this year, I have reaffirmed to myself that this is my passion, this is my calling, this is just an unfortunate incident that happened, and I am not going to let it define me,” Sullivan said. “If anything, I am going to persevere and pursue my goals and my dreams.”

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