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For the 25th year, United Way Day of Caring volunteers will exemplify the spirit of Col. Gerald Russell

by on August 31, 2018 2:44 PM

Thousands of volunteers will pick up their paint brushes and tools to work on more than 100 projects across Centre County on October 4 for the 25th United Way Day of Caring.

In 1994, Gerald Russell, a retired Marine colonel, realized that there were many Centre County citizens willing to spend their time to make their community a better place and many local nonprofits that could use help on small projects. Through Centre County’s United Way, Russell brought the two together for the first Day of Caring.

The Day of Caring allows the nonprofits working to help the Centre County community to use the money they would spend on landscaping, painting, and other projects to continue their work.

“He came up with the idea of, ‘Why don’t we recruit volunteers from the community to spend one day tackling all of these projects around the county?’” says Megan Evans, communications coordinator for the Centre County United Way. “It would save them money, and it would save the community money because we were getting volunteers to do the work and different businesses could donate materials.”

Businesses including Lowes and Home Depot have donated gallons upon gallons of paint over many years, while others including R.H. Marcon have donated roofing materials and helped fix and rebuild the nonprofits’ roofs.

Russell led nearly all aspects of the event for many years, eventually bringing on a small team to help him with the planning and management that included Ryan McCombie.

“He put a lot of energy into it. He visited the sites and he knew all of the people. Nobody could refuse Gerry Russell; it was impossible to refuse him,” says McCombie, a retired Navy captain and Penn State trustee. “That’s how he got me into this. When he got his hooks into me, it was over; you just couldn’t refuse the man.”

Russell passed away in early 2014. That year, the event was renamed the Col. Gerald Russell Day of Caring to honor the man who not only founded the event, but poured his heart and soul into it every year.

“You talk about the Greatest Generation – he was very much a member of that one,” says McCombie. "He exemplified it.”

Numbers grow

Since the event was first created it has grown each year, bringing more and more volunteers to help out nonprofits around the county.

Longtime volunteer Susan Sampsell recalls how comparably small the event was, even after five years.

“When I first asked about it 1999, not many people knew what it was,” Sampsell says. “Now, so many more people know it exists.”

As time went on, the sheer number of volunteers caused the United Way to expand its search for projects.

“It’s not just United Way agencies we do the work for,” says Lloyd Rhoades, another long-time volunteer. “It got to be after a while that we were getting way too many volunteers to put them in the 30 or so agencies that the United Way supported, so we started sending volunteers out to other nonprofits, including churches or cemeteries and others.”

New volunteers join the ranks, helping where they can around Centre County each year. Though the volunteer numbers are almost always high, that’s not always the case with projects.

“The number of projects has been more of a rollercoaster,” Evans says. “There are years where someone gets their office building painted; well, they don’t need it the next year, so it depends on what the agencies need any given year.”

McCombie jokes about how many projects get done each year as the event grew.

“As it got better known and as we got better organized, I think we’ve probably painted every nonprofit wall in State College five times over.”

Smiling inside and out

Volunteers come from all over the community to spend their time at the event. Volunteers range from individuals, couples, and families living in Centre County to Penn State students, staff, and athletic teams to high school students and groups representing local businesses.

The Day of Caring, which PNC Bank has sponsored with the United Way for all 25 years, has opportunities for everyone. When volunteers register they have options as to what kinds of projects they are willing to work on. Examples of common Day of Caring projects include everything from painting, sealing driveways, and landscaping to clearing trails, planting a garden, building a shed, and more.

Sampsell says her favorite part of volunteering at the event is “just working alongside old and new friends to make a difference. I love leaving at the end of the day and completing something, especially when that something can benefit someone else.”

Sampsell highly encourages anyone considering volunteering time to do so.

“Just do it,” she says. “I promise that they will have fun and feel wonderful knowing they gave part of themselves for someone else.”

Rhoades echoed Sampsell.

“If I were to say something to someone considering volunteering, I would say, ‘Do it,’” Rhoads says. “Our agencies do so many wonderful things; they have such a broad mission and there’s not enough funding there.”

“If we can help them out by taking the pressure off of them, by helping clean up their facilities and any other work we can do so that they can focus on the good work that they do to make Centre County a better place to live, do it. You’ll have a hard day of work, but you’ll have a big smile at the end of it inside and out.”


To learn more about the event, submit a project idea, or to register to volunteer, head to For questions, contact Beth Shaha at (814) 238-8283, or [email protected].

Tommy Butler is a freelance writer in State College.



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