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CCE lends a socially distanced helping hand

Published on November 19, 2020

CCE lends a socially distanced helping hand

CCE students deliver letters to pen pals at Douglas Manor.

A CCE volunteer participates in an all-recovery meeting with the CCAR Windham Recovery Community Center.

Students gather to meet virtually with residents at St. Joseph Senior Living Center.

Students produce a video for local children on how to make a pumpkin volcano.

The global pandemic has decimated many industries, including the nonprofit and social services sectors that provide essential support to local communities. In today’s socially distanced world, how do traditional service-based institutions continue to lend a helping hand? The Center for Community Engagement (CCE) at Eastern Connecticut State University tackled this dilemma in fall 2020 by creating new ways to meet the needs of the Windham community.

In a typical semester, the CCE deploys hundreds of student volunteers throughout the Windham area to perform thousands of hours of service through weekly programs and special events. Due to pandemic safety protocols, the CCE was forced to reduce its nearly 40 weekly programs to five socially distanced adaptations this fall. A pandemic-inspired sixth program was also launched.

In deciding which weekly programs to adapt, CCE staff first determined its community partners’ most vulnerable populations, and then determined how to safely offer support in this “new normal.” Preference went to programs that engage the elderly — whose mental health has suffered from familial isolation — and youth, who face education and socialization challenges because of remote schooling. The CCE was also able to carry forward two other programs that engage middle-aged adults.

“So much of our work is on the ground, but we didn’t want to leave the community abandoned,” said CCE Associate Director Kemesha Wilmot. “We’re happy we were able to translate our support virtually and keep up the important work that our community partners rely on—as well as continue to offer these opportunities for students.”

Mayra Santos Acosta leads the program with St. Joseph Senior Living Center.

To meet the technological limitations of the partnering organizations and clients, the CCE utilized a combination of online video chat platforms, social media and video content, and old-fashioned pen and paper.

The residents at St. Joseph Senior Living Center in Windham have been identified as some of the CCE’s most at-risk clientele. For one hour each week, six volunteers chat with guests via FaceTime as St. Joseph staff circulate iPads among the center’s three residential wings.

“These conversations help them to feel connected to people outside of the facility,” said Wilmot, referring to the center’s restrictions on visitors due to COVID-19. “They look forward to the calls; sometimes they ask for help from the St. Joseph staff to have their makeup done in advance of the calls. They want to look good for our students.”

“Having led this program in previous semesters, I do miss having the face-to-face contact with the residents, hanging out, coloring, playing bingo,” said student leader Mayra Santos Acosta, who majors in health sciences. “Every time we FaceTime, they’re in awe that we can see and talk to each other through these ‘tiny devices.’ They just love talking with us and sharing their stories. And they never fail to mention how much they miss us and how much they would like for us to come to the center.”


Zaira Hernandez leads two CCE programs: Douglas Manor and Second Chance.

The program with the Douglas Manor nursing home in Windham has taken a refreshing approach to the remote mandates of the pandemic. Unable to enter the facility and opting out of a virtual component, this program’s seven volunteers have become pen pals with Douglas Manor residents. Student leader Zaira Hernandez acts as the courier, delivering and retrieving letters to and from the facility. Some of her deliveries include care packages consisting of coloring materials, flowers and crossword puzzles, based on the interests described in the pen pals’ letters.

“Many of our volunteers have never had a pen pal before, so this has been an exciting opportunity for them,” said Hernandez, who majors in Spanish and criminology. “I’m happy to say this has been an enriching experience.”

One of the CCE’s most important community partners is Windham Public Schools. As a  brand-new project this semester, CCE volunteers have been creating and uploading short educational videos to the CCE’s Facebook and YouTube pages. More than 20 Eastern students have produced 23 videos for elementary-aged children spanning a variety of topics, including mathematics and boardgame tutorials, story time, science experiments, arts and crafts, and more. Young children can learn how to play Battleship, create art using fallen leaves, make a pumpkin volcano, get study tips on how to do schoolwork at home and more.

Jack Irvine leads the CCE's first-time video production project for local schoolchildren.

“The idea for this project came from discussions we had with staff from the afterschool programs as a way to engage the children when we can’t be with them in person,” said CCE Director Kim Silcox. “The projects in the videos are what the volunteers would be doing if we were able to go into the afterschool programs in person.”

Student leader Jack Irvine, who majors in liberal studies, added, “This new program has given us a fun way to indirectly interact with the students in the school system. The volunteers are extremely engaged and love making the videos. You can see the tremendous amounts of effort that they put into each video.”

To view the content, visit the CCE’s Facebook page at or at the YouTube channel “Eastern Center for Community Engagement.”  

Camryn Tyson leads the program with Nutmeg Big Brothers Big Sisters.

Another first this semester is the virtual pilot with Nutmeg Big Brothers Big Sisters (NBBBS), which partners with Windham Middle School and Eastern to provide mentorship opportunities involving college students and middle schoolers. Seven Eastern volunteers, known as “bigs,” work with seven “littles” one hour each week via Zoom and Google Classroom on schoolwork, games and other activities.

“Considering the circumstances, my volunteers are doing amazing work,” said student leader Camryn Tyson, who double majors in elementary education and liberal studies. “Each activity is designed to create conversations and learning experiences between the big and little. It’s not easy to keep a child interested through a webcam, but I’ve witnessed our volunteers connect with their littles in many ways.”

Another virtual pilot is the CCE’s partnership with the Connecticut Department of Corrections’ Second Chance program, in which Eastern volunteers serve as tutors and teaching assistants for inmates who are pursuing GEDs or college credit. Via Zoom, professional instructors teach courses in English, sociology, entrepreneurship and math, while Eastern volunteers assist with the content during breakout sessions and serve as tutors in a virtual writing center. Nine students volunteer in two-hour sessions on a rotating schedule four days a week.

Lexie Mastroianni co-runs the program with CCAR.

“Our volunteers have grown accustomed to online learning,” said student leader Zaira Hernandez, who also runs the Douglas Manor program. “While technological difficulties can get annoying, assisting the students is not difficult. We all wish that we could meet in person for greater growth and connection, but we’re making do as best we can right now.”

The CCE’s partnership with the Connecticut Community for Addiction Recovery (CCAR) in Windham is another longstanding program that’s been adapted for the pandemic. Via WebEx, 12 volunteers sit in on all-recovery meetings and offer vocational support. In two-hour sessions four days a week, students participate in the meetings, hearing the guests’ stories and sharing their own, then provide assistance with resume writing and job searching.

Tashieka Sangster co-runs the CCAR program.

“This has been a big change from how this program typically runs, but we’ve taken it on with enthusiasm and a positive attitude,” said student leader and mathematics major Lexi Mastroianni, who co-runs the program with political science and criminology double major Tashieka Sangster.

“The guests at the recovery center took some time adjusting to us being on the screen, but over the weeks, as they’ve grown more comfortable, there’s been more interaction, with guests coming up to us asking for support or just to chat. We’ve seen much improvement and involvement in our time with the recovery center!”

Written by Michael Rouleau