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Service Expo showcases a year of pandemic volunteering

Published on April 22, 2021

Service Expo showcases a year of pandemic volunteering

Service Expo

The Center for Community Engagement (CCE) at Eastern Connecticut State University celebrated a year of creative and resilient volunteerism during its annual Service Expo on April 21. The virtual event showcased nine student-led community programs that have flourished despite the pandemic and addressed the needs of the community’s most vulnerable populations. Concluding the expo, three exemplary programs were awarded in the areas of career preparation, community collaboration and virtual innovation.

“This has been such a tough year,” said CCE Director Kim Silcox, speaking of the pandemic that caused Eastern to reinvent how it engages with the community. “We are incredibly proud of our students, who have truly stepped up to make this year the best it can be. Their hard work has provided a great benefit to the community members we work with.” Addressing the student volunteers, Silcox said, “You make the CCE what it is.”

The expo was divided into three sections. The “Liberal Education, Practically Applied” category featured three programs with an emphasis on employability skills and career preparation. The Jumpstart, Second Chance and CCAR programs were judged by Walter Diaz, vice president for student affairs, and Lana O’Connor, assistant director of the Center for Internships and Career Development.

Represented by student leader Jeniel Edmonds, Jumpstart is an early literacy program for Windham preschoolers. Thirty Eastern students have volunteered hundreds of hours in the program this academic year, preparing activity bags and creating short videos to engage the children remotely due to the pandemic.

Connecticut Community for Addiction Recovery (CCAR)

Represented by students Lexi Mastroianni and Tashieka Sangster, the program with the Connecticut Community for Addiction Recovery (CCAR) engages Eastern students with community members battling addiction. In this program, students participate in all-recovery meetings and provide vocational support for participants. A major goal of the program is to erase the stigma surrounding addiction. “It has been eye-opening to listen to the different stories and be a part of something that most people have a false representation on,” said volunteer Makayla Christian. “One skill I developed is being open minded to others.”

Second Chance, the winning program in the “Liberal Arts, Practically Applied” category, was represented by student leader Zaira Hernandez. Eastern students serve as tutors for incarcerated individuals who are pursuing their education. Three days a week, five volunteers assist with courses in sociology, management and math. One Second Chance student reported that the Eastern volunteers “keep us talking, keep us thinking, keep us on our toes,” adding that they have an invaluable role in the success of the program.

COVID Testing

Second Chance

Douglas Manor

CCE Video Project

Hernandez, who is majoring in criminology, noted that the program is a direct application of her studies. “A lot of what I learn in class, I see in the prison system.” Of her interaction with Second Chance students and prison staff, she added, “It’s good to see the perspective on the other side. This year, we also got to hear from Department of Corrections’ side … their thoughts and feelings.”

For the “Strengthening Communities” category, three programs were judged on their collaboration with community members to address an issue of importance. Sociology Professor Theresa Severance and Social Work Lecturer Catina Caban-Owen served as judges and heard from the COVID Testing Program, Douglas Manor Nursing & Rehabilitation Center and St. Joseph Living Center.

Represented by Tashieka Sangster, the COVID Testing Program has operated throughout the academic year in collaboration with the University’s goal to minimize the spread of COVID-19 on campus. Volunteers completed more than 255 hours, assisting students with electronic attendance, navigating the testing site, placing signage and fulfilling other tasks as needed. These volunteers were a part of a campus-wide effort that has administered nearly 17,000 COVID tests and maintained a positivity rate of less than .005.

The Douglas Manor project, presented by Zaira Hernandez, is meant to address the loneliness and depression that elderly people have faced because of the isolation brought on by the pandemic. Ten volunteers have volunteered more than 140 hours, writing and receiving letters as pen pals with Douglas Manor residents.

Hernandez said that this mode of communicating bridges a generational gap with the elderly who may not be comfortable with technology. “Something about a physical letter is so precious … It’s a keepsake.” Speaking to the unexpected relationships that have formed, she added, “This program allows us to meet people who we otherwise wouldn’t meet.”

St. Joseph
CCE volunteers interact with residents at St. Joseph Living Center.

The winning program in the “Strengthening Communities” category was St. Joseph Living Center. Represented by student leader Lexi Mastroianni, this program also engages the local elderly population during times of isolation, but in a virtual way using video chat technology. Mastroianni noted that during the height of the pandemic, her volunteers provided some of the only social interaction the residents received.

“It has shown time and time again that human connection is integral to mental and spiritual health,” said volunteer Shalyn Moran. “I am so happy to be a positive aspect of that contribution. Every week my cheeks hurt from smiling.”

For the “Engaging the Community Virtually” category, three programs were judged based on their virtual engagement with community partners. Assistant Director of Student Activities Joshua Sumrell and Education Professor Laura Rodriguez heard from student volunteers with Nutmeg Big Brother Big Sister, the CCE Video Project and EastConn’s Cool Directions Mentoring Program.

Presented by Camryn Tyson, the CCE ‘s partnership with Nutmeg Big Brother Big Sister began in 2018 to foster mentorships among college students and Windham Middle School teenagers. Adapted virtually for the pandemic, the program brings the “bigs” and “littles” together through conversation and activities designed by the volunteers.

Tyson noted that the virtual format turned out to be an asset for the program, as communicating from home enabled a closer look into each other’s lives. She also noted that technical difficulties, household distractions and getting the kids to open up in the online format were challenges.

Represented by student leader Jack Irvine, the CCE Video Project is meant to engage Windham youth who would normally participate in after school programs. Volunteers logged nearly 200 hours creating 60 short videos about a range of topics and activities. Videos included oral story time presentations, a pumpkin volcano science experiment, guitar lessons, fashion tips, ballet lessons, board game tutorials and more. The videos can be found on the CCE’s YouTube channel.

The winning program of the “Engaging the Community Virtually” category was the EastConn Cool Directions Mentoring Program. By paring graduating high school students with current college students, Cool Directions is meant to help transition younger students into higher education. The judges favored this program for its wide reach, as the program engages youth from the region of eastern Connecticut.

Written by Michael Rouleau