The Colgate Scene
From Broad Street to the Dominican Republic, Colgate students are helping — and inspiring — communities through volunteer service
|By Aleta Mayne|
Doneisha Snider (left), Marla Pfenninger (middle), and Rachel Greenburg (right), play a game to teach nutrition basics to children in the Dominican Republic.
Colgate students and community members from the village of El Mangito plant vegetable gardens to address the issue of malnutrition in this area of the Dominican Republic.
Betania, a 7-year-old who is noticeably small for her age, and her younger sister spent two days lugging rocks in 80-degree heat. The girls, who live in the village of El Mangito, had taken it upon themselves to establish a plot for their family to grow a garden. This sight, encountered by a group of Colgate students on their recent trip to the Dominican Republic, signified a victory and a turning point — both for them and for the village. The nine students and Daniel Mandell, assistant director of the COVE (Center for Outreach, Volunteerism, and Education), had spent their spring break digging family gardens and providing nutrition education to a community with an urgent need. It was hoped that the group's work would inspire residents to continue and build upon their work after they left.
Alternative spring break trips such as this are one example of the myriad ways in which Colgate students are taking part in service work, locally and abroad. On a national level, the trend on college campuses shows increased support for and participation in service work, according to Campus Compact, a national association dedicated to building civic engagement into college life. Like their peers at other liberal arts schools, Colgate students are volunteering their time and talents to enhance their college experience and help communities grow.
Planting seeds of progress
"My initial thoughts were that it would be a very interesting but maybe overambitious project," admits Mandell, who worked with Pfenninger to refine her proposal. "But Marla invested a lot of time and energy in following through, and every time I threw questions at her, she'd come back with more information; so, eventually it started to seem feasible," he said. They went through many stages in the development of the proposal, from researching demographics to the logistics of obtaining seeds and resources.
As the first COVE trip to the Dominican Republic and as a student-initiated venture that would set the precedent for future student proposals, there was a lot riding on its success. "I'm worried about the gardens failing and the project not being sustainable," Pfenninger wrote in a letter to herself before the trip. "It's difficult to do this because I never feel as though I'm doing enough; there's always more to be done."
Student interest in the trip was overwhelming, with 60 students applying for nine slots. A willingness to commit to weekly planning sessions was one of the main requirements the committee looked for when narrowing down the applicant pool. "I told students that they would have to consider this trip to be an additional class because there was so much that still needed to be fleshed out. It couldn't be something that they put in the back of their minds until March 14," Mandell explained.
In addition to fundraising efforts and planning nitty-gritty details for the gardens, the group developed four educational sessions to inform the community about proper nutrition. "Previously, groups came in and told them what was good to eat, but they didn't explain why," said senior Katie Castino. The sessions included an introduction to nutrition, beneficial cooking practices, early childhood nutrition including breastfeeding guidelines, and educational games and activities for children. To aid their presentations, students made recipe books, handouts, and flashcards, all in Spanish and accompanied by pictures for those in the community who could not read.
Unable to completely prepare from a distance and wanting to tailor their strategy to the community's specific needs, the students conducted focus groups on the first day to discuss eating practices. "We wanted our engagement with them to be more collaborative," Mandell explained.
Participation in the educational sessions flourished, with the number of attendees growing from 20 people on the first day to 70 by the last day. "People were definitely engaged," Pfenninger said, adding that World Vision complimented them for capturing people's interest in a way that previous groups had not. "We decided this was our one chance to do the presentations we'd been planning for a long time and they would be great. Once I started seeing that, my fears went out the door and I started relying on the group to execute what we had talked about," she said.
Although at first residents observed while the students were working, by the end of the week, the whole community pitched in to dig up rocks and transport soil for each family's garden. "Not just the kids — even the grandmothers were carrying huge buckets of dirt," reported senior Annemarie Papandrea, who hopes to begin working for a nonprofit organization in the Dominican Republic after graduation.
Overcoming the arduous task of culling rocks to till the soil and long days of working in the heat, the group managed to sow approximately 35 gardens. They planted seeds for broccoli, beets, eggplant, beans, and peppers, among other vegetables.
Mandell noted the empowerment that was fostered in the El Mangito community through the project. "People obviously questioned why they needed a group of foreigners to come in and build the gardens, because they could build their own, but it took our coming as a catalyst to inspire them to do it," he said.
Betania and her sister were one example of community members who were inspired to start their own gardens. Although her family wasn't one of the 10 scheduled to receive a garden, she worked alongside the Colgate group and community members on other gardens before starting hers. Upon seeing Betania's initiative, the group decided to help her finish planting three gardens behind her family's home. They also brought seeds to her neighbor and helped him finish his garden, which he had started. "We are overcome with emotion at the thought that our efforts are making differences in the lives of not only the families on the list to receive a garden, but also in the entire community," Castino wrote in her journal that day.
Another objective of the trip was to lay the foundation for a sustainable relationship with the El Mangito community. Junior Evan Kramer believes they were successful in making a lasting impression on the community because they bonded with the residents and then started planting, rather than barging in and taking over.
When Kramer hugged little Betania good-bye and told her to behave for her parents, his emotions overwhelmed him. "So much sadness to be leaving the kids with whom we developed such a sense of community and friendship," he wrote in his journal.
As Castino was boarding the bus for the last time, she noticed a little boy hunched over and tending to one of the gardens. In that moment, any concerns of whether the group could effect lasting change after only one week were alleviated, she said. "I knew that the community was truly invested in the gardening project and would continue to work toward its lasting success."
World Vision will continue supporting the project by teaching community members about garden maintenance as well as sending updates to Pfenninger and Mandell. Both are hoping this partnership will lead to similar projects in neighboring communities.
Upon their return to campus, the students gave presentations to educate others about what they learned through the project, and incorporated this knowledge into some of their classes. Even in her final semester, Pfenninger continues to work toward the growth of the alternative break program. Mandell and the COVE staff are developing a protocol and a website for other students to follow Pfenninger's path and submit proposals for trips.
Elizabeth Thompson, women's studies program assistant, reads a passage to students, faculty, and community members during the annual Take Back the Night March.
A call for help
Sophomore Courtney Walsh remarked that she seems to get the most calls when she's on break at home, which was where she received her most emotional call last summer. The female caller told Walsh that she had devised a plan to pick her children up from school and run away from her husband, who had become so controlling that she was barely allowed to leave the house. The caller's husband also was verbally and physically abusive to her, and was sexually abusing their children, she said. These types of heart-wrenching calls can be difficult for volunteers, particularly because liability issues prohibit them from giving advice. "We're not allowed to tell the victims what to do, but we can listen and give them ideas for what they can do," Walsh explained. "That's the toughest part because you feel for the person and you just want to go pick them up yourself." The psychology major said that she did recommend Liberty Resources' safe home as well as provide other references to that caller; however, Walsh admitted that another challenging part of this volunteer work is not being able to find out what happened to the caller afterward.
Helping victims feel like they are valued is what balances out the unknown factor, Walsh explained. "They think no one cares about them and that they're not worth anything," she said. "So when you listen to them and show that you're interested in what they say and really care about the situation, that's one of the most important parts of the call. I have consolation that I gave her words of encouragement and maybe she has an inch of strength and confidence in her now." Walsh, who averages four 12-hour shifts a month, added, "That's why I keep doing it."
Oftentimes, victims are mostly in need of someone to talk to, agreed Colleen Nassimos, COVE administrative coordinator and Iaso staff adviser. "Without fail, every caller I've had has said, `Thank you so much for listening.'"
Nassimos also pointed out that domestic violence can be a critical issue on college campuses, so Iaso is dedicated to raising awareness at Colgate. The annual Take Back the Night March gives voice to an issue that is often kept silent, she said. Following the march, people are given the opportunity to tell their personal stories at a Speak Out. "We even have people from the community come," said Nassimos, adding that a 60-year-old participant had never revealed her experience as a victim of violence to anyone before that night.
Carlene Holt, the senior advocate at Liberty Resources who leads Colgate's hotline volunteers through the 30-hour training sessions, also attends the event with her colleagues. Holt said the Iaso program, named after the Greek goddess of healing, has blossomed in the past couple of years. "They're very committed," she said of Colgate's volunteers. "It's refreshing to see a future generation that wants to be part of making change."
In February, the women's ice hockey team donned special pink jerseys, which were auctioned off as part of a league-wide Pink at the Rink breast cancer fundraiser.
Teaming up for a better world
One recent initiative by Colgate athletics began with the local community but had a much farther-reaching impact. Pink at the Rink, a breast cancer fundraising campaign, was spearheaded by Scott Wiley, head women's ice hockey coach, who leads his team by example. In hopes of involving all 12 Patriot League teams in his plan to use pink jerseys as a fundraising tool, Wiley contacted ECAC Hockey Commissioner Steve Hagwell. Coincidentally, Hagwell had been brainstorming on a similar idea the day Wiley called. "I felt like I was in the Twilight Zone," said Hagwell, who then brought the idea to the vice president of the American Cancer Society in Albany. "Scott was the driving force for this, so much of the credit goes to him," Hagwell added.
The league stepped up to pay for specially designed pink jerseys, which each team wore in their February home games. Afterward, the jerseys were auctioned off, along with pink ties and scarves that were worn by the coaches, on MissionFish.org (eBay's charitable affiliate). Colgate parents, alumni, and community members bid on the pink Raider jerseys until all 23 sold for an average price of $220 each.
Players on both the women's and men's hockey teams at Colgate rallied around the cause. Junior Kiira Dosdall coordinated a group of her teammates to make pink T-shirts and sell them at a table in the Coop. Sophomore Ethan Cox organized a face-off challenge, which prompted local businesses and fans to pledge donations correlating to the number of face-off wins that the men's team earned one weekend. Through combined efforts such as these and the online jersey sales, the league donated a total of $40,000 to the American Cancer Society.
Members of the women's hockey team experienced the human aspect of the campaign when they visited children in the hematology/oncology wing of Upstate Medical Hospital in Syracuse. "It made everything that we did so much more meaningful because we were able to meet patients who would benefit from our efforts," said sophomore Nicole McDonald.
The campaign had personal meaning for many, including Wiley, Cox, and Dosdall — all of whose families have been affected by cancer. In honor of her grandmother who had passed away from cancer, Dosdall's family bought her jersey and had it framed for her grandfather.
"I told the team that it's much bigger than a pink jersey," said Wiley. "It's about the important people in your lives whom you're helping, and it's about wearing that jersey to support them or as a tribute to them."
Jillian Arnault (left) and Kiki Koroshetz (right), both sophomore members of the women's soccer team, read to third graders at Hamilton Elementary as part of the Adopt-a-Classroom program.
Beyond four years
An important goal of the community service movement on campus is encouraging students to foster sustainable relationships beyond their four years, according to Hale. "After they leave, there's still a need to be fulfilled," she said.
Senior Lisa Henty, who won the Dean's Community Service Award last year for her involvement, has been preparing for her departure since last spring. Knowing she would be abroad in the fall and graduating this spring, Henty selected an enthusiastic student to shadow her in the Madison Craft Club, an after-school art program with elementary school students. The next generation of students must be set up "to carry the torch and change what they see is necessary for improvement," she explained. "Otherwise, you see organizations that just ebb and flow and you have to re-create the wheel every time, which is frustrating," she said from experience.
Some alumni — like Charlene Chan '05 — have continued the community service work they began at Colgate. Having been involved in Iaso as a student, Chan still volunteers for the Victims of Violence hotline even though she lives in New York City now. Chan said she wanted to maintain her relationship with Liberty Resources and stay in touch with her passion for helping people. "It allows you to get a glimpse of the world out there," she said. "Volunteering shouldn't be about being able to add something to your resume, but a way for you to give something you are privileged to have."
Echoing this sentiment, Walsh said she — like so many of her fellow student and alumni volunteers — feels compelled to give back to the community to show thanks for all she's been blessed with. Quoting Florence Nightingale, Walsh said she lives by the ideal that "To whom much is given, much is expected."
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