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When the University of Utah established the Lowell Bennion Community Service Center, it paid homage to a Utahn who is well-known and loved for his lifelong community involvement and charitable activities.

Lowell Bennion founded Utah Boys Ranch and was the longtime director of the Community Services Council, which operates a number of programs including the food bank that stocks many of the emergency pantries in Utah.He has served on numerous nonprofit boards of directors. Anyone who needs help has always been able to count on Bennion.

I doubt if the founders had any idea what kind of impact the center would have on the community.

Bennion, the man, has made Utah a better place to live. So has the center named after him.

The principle behind the center is pretty basic: enrich the lives of students, faculty and staff by involving them in charitable public service.

The community benefits because things that need to be done get done and the volunteer effort saves uncountable amounts of money.

Student project directors are at the core of the center's activities. They agree to organize an activity and put together a team of volunteers to carry it out. Sometimes they are asked for help; sometimes they look around and design projects to meet the needs they encounter.

The possibilities are seemingly endless, ranging from one-time to ongoing service.

When the city was putting together the Salt Lake Community Shelter and Resource Center, one of the people in charge of the effort contacted the university to see if it could find someone to do a projection of operating costs for 15 years.

A member of the faculty came through, estimating costs to run the facility, which includes separate shelters for families, single women and single men in one huge building on Rio Grande Street.

During recent record snowfalls, Bennion Center volunteers joined others in the community to shovel the walks and clear the roofs of people who are elderly or disabled.

They've done a variety of projects at the homeless shelter, both as individuals and as groups.

The center even has an environmental team. It gets together regularly to replant areas that have been neglected, clear trails, start recycling projects and more.

And they've painted so many buildings, including homes for elderly people, that center director Irene Fisher said she couldn't even begin to count or name them.

They celebrated their fifth birthday recently in a very fitting way: Their party was a service project. Volunteers could be found helping Habitat for Humanity pour the foundation of a house that will be finished for a low-income family.

Student participants say providing public service to the community is addictive. When you get involved in one and see the results, you're anxious to go out and do more.

I've talked to several university graduates who were involved in the Bennion Center's projects. They left the school, but they are still donating their times and talents to the community.

The center has also been a great way to meet new people and pick up skills that could come in handy later. It adds a new and valuable dimension to the interaction between the students, faculty and staff.

Perhaps most important, Bennion Center participants have proved that this is not necessarily a "me-first" society, as it's sometimes called. People of all colors, sizes, races, ages and creeds are reaching out to each other.

University life is supposed to provide an education and prepare its students for the "real" world of work and community. It is meant to be a time of learning and growth.

The Bennion Center adds a very real - and valuable - dimension to that education and growth.

It seems to me that if someone learns nothing else but how to care about others and help them when they are lonely, vulnerable, disabled, poor or in need for some other reason, his quest for an education will have been fulfilled.