Students volunteering.

IMPACT student service organization pivots to meet its mission during the pandemic

Athens, Ga. – It is a familiar sight on the University of Georgia campus several times a year – dozens of students clutching pillows and duffle bags as they gather at the Tate Student Center to board vans bound for far-flung cities across the eastern United States.

The students are participating in IMPACT Service Breaks, a program that engages them in affordable, week-long, substance-free experiential learning projects that also help them to understand pressing societal issues like community health and well-being, the earth and environment, human rights, minoritized communities, and human need.

This past year, the destinations are not so distant, and there is little need for pillows or luggage. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, IMPACT has reinvented itself as IMPACT LOCAL, focusing on safely distanced in-person service trips on weekends to sites in the Athens area. The organization is operating under a hybrid model that also includes virtual trips and educational roundtables to broaden the learning experience for students.

This academic year, more than 150 students participated in 19 IMPACT Service Break trips, including one virtual trip, representing approximately 3160 hours of service to the Athens community.

Sammie Smith, a second-year student from Dacula studying biology and Spanish, led two animal welfare trips spring semester.

“IMPACT has long-term community partners in the locations to which we usually travel, but our interactions with the local Athens community had been limited until now,” she said. “We understand that it’s important to serve the communities in which we live, so a major goal going forward will be improving our program and its interactions with Athens.”

Smith says that community partners in the Athens area have been welcoming and receptive to IMPACT’s presence. Among the local organizations served this year are Friends of Brooklyn Cemetery, Keep Athens-Clarke County Beautiful, DIVAS Who Win Freedom Center, Concrete Jungle, and Bear Hollow Zoo.

“Athens is an incredibly inclusive and welcoming community, so it was no surprise that the individuals we worked with were more than happy to work with us,” she said.

According to Amanda Torrence, assistant director for service in the department of Engagement, Leadership, and Service, staff and student leaders effectively maintained relationships with IMPACT’s traditional community partners while transitioning to the localized hybrid program.

“One of the primary goals of IMPACT is to work with the same non-profits year after year,” she said. “The executive board and site leaders did a phenomenal job of shifting everything to Athens while finding creative ways to engage some of the regular non-profit partners across the country via Zoom.”

Now in its 27th year at UGA, IMPACT has grown from a single annual effort during spring break to a broad series of year-round experiences for students held during instructional breaks. While the pandemic forced IMPACT to revise its operations, Torrence says that the focus on local service experiences will continue once the program can safely resume its expanded, multi-state trips.

“The organization’s leaders intend to provide multiple options,” she said. “They aim to return to ‘normal’ and work with the standard locations across the country during fall, winter, and spring breaks as well as provide between three to six local weekend trip options per semester.”

With its newly broadened scope of service, IMPACT will continue to help students recognize connections between their social identities, their service experiences, and the underlying social issues.

Smith says the challenges of the past year have strengthened her resolve and helped her to grow in multiple ways.

“As a student leader in this organization, I was challenged in a way that I had not been before, and I believe it has made me a better student, citizen, and leader,” she said.

IMPACT is a registered student organization directly advised by Engagement, Leadership, and Service within UGA Student Affairs.

Contact: Amanda Torrence, 706-542-6396,