DOWNTOWN — On a cloudy Saturday morning, Emily Richardson, unlike many college students her age, is not sleeping in. Instead of hitting the snooze button, she boards a school bus that takes her from Pepperdine University to the Salvation Army in Santa Monica, where she will coordinate volunteers for her school’s Step Forward Day.

“It’s really just a way to kick off the service year. It’s kind of a huge school-wide effort to get everybody started off serving at the beginning of the year and get excited about the service projects throughout the semester,” said Richardson, a senior majoring in rhetoric and leadership.

From campus beautification projects at elementary schools to interacting with residents of a nursing home, participants of the 22nd annual Step Forward Day, an international day of service put on by Pepperdine students and staff, arrived early Saturday morning to volunteer at organizations in their local communities.

More than 2,000 students, alumni and staff members lent a helping hand in cities mostly in the Los Angeles and Ventura counties, with some alumni participating from as far as Tokyo, Japan. In Santa Monica, 195 volunteers served at seven sites, including Seaport Care Center, Roosevelt Elementary and the Salvation Army.

“Everybody just goes and helps out in the community wherever they can, and try to make a difference with a lot of people in a short amount of time,” said Dr. Sarah Watt, a communication professor and director of forensics at Pepperdine University.

Richardson, who first got involved in the project her freshman year, led about 60 of her fellow students at the Salvation Army’s center and senior housing complex. The group assisted with deep cleaning the building’s exteriors, organizing cabinets, washing cars and other miscellaneous cleaning tasks.

“Step Forward Day is pretty much Pepperdine students and staff living out the motto, ‘freely receive, freely give,’” Richardson said. “We’re just here to do whatever they need.”

The volunteers at the Salvation Army in Santa Monica alone contributed about 200 hours, said Capt. Mario Ruiz, commanding officer at Salvation Army.

“Here we are only six people, so all of these tasks we put off — because there’s no time to do it — when [volunteers] come here, it’s incredible. There’s a big, big difference,” Ruiz said. “What they’re doing … it’s not only helping us, but it’s also helping them to see and give back in some way.”

Across town at Roosevelt Elementary School, students distributed school supplies, pulled weeds and helped teachers prepare for the upcoming school year.

“A parent volunteer … thought that it was angels coming down to save her. She was just overwhelmed by how much paper needed to be distributed,” Assistant Principal Rebecca Chu said.

Planning for the event started in June, when coordinators reached out to local community organizations in need of volunteers.

Meredith Miller, assistant director of the Pepperdine Volunteer Center, credits the hard work of the students involved.

“Watching our students come together, it’s exciting. It’s kind of an honor to be around them and support them when they create something so big for a community,” said Miller.

Step Forward Day began in 1988, when two students found a need for volunteers in their community. From one volunteering event in Malibu, the day has grown to encompass 83 organizations locally and internationally.

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