‘Why,’ not ‘What’: Service Expo Honors Community Partnerships

CCE student leaders and staff at the Service Expo and Awards.

The Center for Community Engagement (CCE) at Eastern Connecticut State University hosted its annual Service Expo and Awards on April 18. The event showcased the numerous service projects being spearheaded by Eastern students in the Windham community and featured a keynote address by Ryan Matthews, director of community programs for Nutmeg Big Brothers Big Sisters and executive director of the Susie Foundation. The event concluded with an award ceremony for outstanding projects and individuals.

Hundreds of Eastern students volunteer thousands of hours in the Windham area every academic year. At the expo, student leaders staffed posters describing more than 50 community programs spanning a variety of causes — working with children in afterschool programs, volunteering at the local homeless shelter, assisting the elderly at a rehabilitation center and more. Judges perused the displays, questioning students and ranking the projects according to different criteria.

Jenna Petitti volunteers at the Connecticut Community for Addiction Recovery (CCAR), helping to lead all-recovery meetings. “Working with an adult population is totally different from what I’m used to,” said Petitti, who majors in secondary education. “It’s been an amazing experience. We form connections with the guests that are there, which gives us a new perspective on their part, as well as for them on our part. It’s a great way to break down barriers and stigmas between the two groups. We’re like one big family.”

 

Katelyn Root and Ryan McCarthy led a community-based project on problem gambling. “Problem gambling is something that’s not obvious,” explained Root, comparing it to other types of addictions that have physical symptoms. “Lower-income areas with less resources are heavily affected by gambling because they’re targeted by advertising. They want to trick you into thinking you’ll be the next big winner. A lot of people don’t realize this; it’s important to make the community aware.”

McCarthy focused on sports gambling—a topic he’s drawn to for personal reasons. “I know a former student who gambled his tuition money away, thinking he’d be able to double or triple it. He ended up dropping out,” said McCarthy. “And I have another friend with a gambling addiction. This project has helped me cope because if I can help someone… I don’t want to see them go through what I’ve witnessed two of my friends go through.”

Jessica Saffiotti volunteers with the Sweeny Girl’s Club, an afterschool program for girls between third and fifth grade that emphasizes self-confidence and self-advocacy. “This program has helped me solidify that I want to be a teacher,” said Saffioti, who’s helped the girls deal with bullying and the stresses of having divorced parents. “It’s helped me realize how important it is to help these girls find themselves, find their voices, stand up for themselves. I never had that growing up, so giving it to them… I’ve seen a big change over the year, in how much more confident they are.”

Rafael Aragon volunteers with the Sweeney Elementary Afterschool Program. During his presentation he explained thermochromic slime. “It changes colors based on temperature,” he said. “It’s like magic to the kids, their eyes glow. Then we have the opportunity to explain it to them, how and why it works. This leaves them with an understanding; there’s science behind it. They realize that they can learn this and do things that are cool and interesting. Actively participating in the world triggers a change in their perspective of education.”

Keynote speaker Ryan Matthews

Keynote speaker Ryan Matthews followed the poster session. He is the director of community programs for Nutmeg Big Brothers Big Sisters and executive director of the Susie Foundation, an agency that assists people impacted by Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS).

In regard to determining a career path, Matthews emphasized the importance of identifying the “why,” rather than “what,” that leads to future actions. “My ‘why’ is my mom,” he shared. His mother died of ALS when he was 23. ALS is an immobilizing disease that destroys neurons controlling voluntary muscles.

At the time, Matthews and his father were full-time caretakers for his mother, an emotionally and physically taxing role. He recalled the fateful night when he grew impatient with his ailing mother, who was struggling to communicate something to him. Instead of waiting for her message, “I walked away without saying goodnight, without saying I love you,” he said. The next day, his mother was in a coma, and passed away soon after.

Matthews has used this emotionally draining experience to guide his professional journey. “I’m enormously grateful for that failure. It’s provided me a well of resiliency. It’s that well, that purpose, that ‘why’ which drives my work forward.”

The Susie Foundation, named after his mother Susan, was launched with the goal of directly supporting ALS patients, families and caregivers in Connecticut, while also contributing to the eventual eradication of the disease.

The Outstanding Student of the Year award went to Jocelyn Santiago.
The Rookie of the Year award went to Lexie Mastroianni (left).
A Community Engagement Award went to student Shawn Dousis (middle).
The Service Learning Award went to Professor Terry Lennox (middle).
Community partner Carolyn Stearns (middle) received a Community Engagement Award.
A Community Engagement Award went to Professor Cara Bergstrom-Lynch (right).
The Outstanding Community Event Award went to CCAR.

 

An award ceremony concluded the event. The Support Our Schools award went to United Way Readers/Natchaug Elementary School; the Best New Program award went to the Women’s Meeting at CCAR; the Broadening Horizons award went to the Puentes Al Futuro/Bridges to the Future program; the Leadership Development award went to the Ashford School Girls Mentoring Program; the Strengthening Communities award went to the CCAR Problem Gambling program; the Putting Liberal Arts Into Action award went to the Windham Technical High School Tutoring Program; the Kids First award went to the Windham Heights After School Program; the Liberal Education Practically Applied award went to the Nutmeg Big Brothers Big Sisters Mentoring Program; and the Community Choice award went to the United Way Readers/Natchaug Elementary School.

Community Engagement Awards went to student Shawn Dousis; Professor Cara Bergstrom-Lynch; and community partner Carolyn Stearns. The Service Learning Award went to Professor Terry Lennox for the ACCESS Agency Poster Project. The Outstanding Community Event Award went to CCAR. The Rookie of the Year award went to Lexie Mastroianni and the Outstanding Student of the Year award went to Jocelyn Santiago.

Written by Michael Rouleau and Jordan Corey