Written by Michael Rouleau
More than 20 projects were on display for Eastern Connecticut State University’s annual Service Expo and Awards on April 12. Held at St. Joseph Church in Willimantic, the annual ceremony was hosted by Eastern’s Center for Community Engagement (CCE) and showcased a variety of volunteer and service-learning work completed by Eastern students in the Windham community. Projects were evaluated and awarded and outstanding students, faculty and community partners were recognized.
In the 2015-16 academic year, 1,167 Eastern students – of a campus population of approximately 5,300 – served 20,024 hours in the community. Independent Sector, a public policy organization, values community service at $23.56 per hour, which equated to $471,765 worth of service last year to the Windham community. In the current academic year (2016-17), Eastern students are projected to match, if not surpass, these totals – the academic year will conclude next month.
Projects featured at the Service Expo spanned a variety of causes and organizations, from working with local youth in after school programs to assisting at a local homeless shelter; from volunteering with adults with disabilities to starting a new initiative that brings leftover food from Eastern’s dining hall to the local soup kitchen.
Social work major Mariana Vega ’17 presented on her project with the Connecticut Community for Addiction Recovery (CCAR). “The goal of CCAR is to put a face on recovery,” said Vega, acknowledging the stigma surrounding people in addiction and recovery. Two hours a day, three days a week, she helps at the center by assisting clients with job applications, studying for their GED and other tasks.
“There’s only so much you can learn in a classroom,” said Vega, who is interested in the fields of addiction, recovery and substance abuse. “When you actually hear their stories and see the people face to face, it’s a huge impact. We get a lot out of it.”
Student projects are categorized as community service (volunteering) or service learning (community service-based classwork). Speaking to the concept of service learning, Nicolas Simon, sociology professor and expo judge, said: “Sending our students to the community, talking with human beings, self-reflecting on the experience, and connecting the experience to the material we’re covering in the classroom really helps students have a concrete relationship to knowledge.”
Not only is community service eye-opening for students, it deepens their sense of belonging while helping to meet community needs, builds resumes and professional experience, and gives students insight into the field they may be considering after graduation. Simon concluded, “Service learning is really a complement to the liberal arts education at Eastern.”
Josh Desouza ’17, who double majors in business administration and business information systems, presented on his project with Grow Windham, a local nonprofit that deals with food insecurity. Working alongside four of his classmates, “This project was over 700 hours of work,” he said.
“The website we built allows Grow Windham to better manage its operations; they can run reports to see how many hours their interns have worked, how many events they ran in a year, how many crops they’ve grown in their different gardens.” Desouza says the website will soon be migrated with Grow Windham’s main site, and assist the organization in obtaining grant funding by helping it to easily build reports and access numbers.
Concluding the event, standout projects and individuals were recognized. The Service Learning Award went to John Murphy, a lecturer in the Communication Department at Eastern. Murphy has engaged students in community-based media production work, resulting in valuable promotional videos, on-air public service announcements and data analytics for many area non-profit organizations.
The Student Community Engagement Award went to Jasmine Carvalho ’17, a psychology major. Carvalho’s community engagement spans all four of her years at Eastern, working with the CCE, several service-based organizations on campus, and numerous projects and special events.
The Faculty/Staff Community Engagement Award went to Social Work Professor Catina Caban-Owen, who also is a social worker at North Windham School. Caban-Owen routinely brings her students into the community for learning and service. She is also the founder of the Windham Task Force to Prevent Child Abuse and Neglect.
The Community Partner Award went to Avery Lenhart, shelter manager at the Windham No Freeze Shelter. She is the coordinator of the Youth Empowerment Team Initiative (YETI), which focuses on youth homelessness with a goal of ending youth and family homelessness in Connecticut by 2022.
The Outstanding Community Event Award went to the United Way of Central and Northeast Connecticut, which focuses on childhood education and financial stability for families. The United Way Readers Program was expanded to include Windham this year, serving 23 children at Natchaug Elementary School during the school day and after school. The United Way Community Engagement staff provided training, materials and ongoing support for the 17 Eastern volunteers in the program.
Eight student-driven projects were recognized in seven categories. The Food Recovery Program won the Going Green Award and the Best New Program Award. The Broadening Horizons Award went to Vanderman Place. The Leadership Development Award went to the Le Le Project. The Strengthening Communities Award went to CCAR. The Putting Liberal Arts into Action Award went to two programs: the Windham Middle School Tutorial Program and the Windham Middle School Girls Mentoring Program. The Kids First Award went to the Windham High School Afterschool Program.