Learning to Serve Others: Freshmen Take Part in Community Connections
Deeply rooted in its commitment to serving others, each year Sacred Heart University offers incoming freshman students the opportunity to take part in its renowned service immersion program called Community Connections. This year the program took place August 16-23, and 48 new students took advantage of it—the largest group in the program’s history.
Along with 15 peer leaders and several faculty and staff members, the students resided at St. Charles Catholic Urban Center in Bridgeport where they built homes for Habitat for Humanity, served at soup kitchens and food pantries and engaged with urban children and parents.
Over the years, Community Connections has proven true to its title, fostering deep and lasting connections on many different levels while cultivating a partnership with the diverse population of the Park City.
The program gives students an experience that many say shape their college years, subsequent career paths and dedication to altruism. The experience opens students to a real-life glimpse of urban issues, various cultures, the trials and tribulations of the working poor and their hope of making a better life while conquering poverty, addiction and other perils.
Community Connections is the first taste of volunteering for some students. Freshman Kevin Rivera said the program was an eye-opening experience that offered his first-ever visit to a soup kitchen. “Not only did we prepare their meal, but we also ate with them and learned their stories,” he said.” I met a man there who was from the same place I am from—Trumbull—and I learned how he got involved in drugs and in trouble, but he also told me he’s recovering. Growing up you hear about the high crime in Bridgeport, but what I learned is that there are a lot of nice people who live there and want to do better and are working to improve their lives.” Rivera also appreciated the chance to meet and bond with new friends and said the experience has motivated him to continue serving the community.
In addition to service activities, the students also attended a Spanish Mass, took in a Bluefish game, had an authentic Puerto Rican meal and learned to Salsa dance. They learned about Bridgeport’s rich history and its scores of different cultures and neighborhoods. Additionally, each night, students had the opportunity for reflection as a group where they shared what they had gleaned from the day’s experiences.
Participants in Community Connections also got a sobering look at the hard realities of life and the difficulties of obtaining one of life’s most basic necessities—housing. “We worked alongside a family who was building their Habitat for Humanity home and heard how one day they were renting an apartment in Bridgeport, and then they were suddenly homeless because the apartment they were renting had gone into bank foreclosure and they were forced out,” said Teresa Pachelli of Ramsey, N.J. “It was sad, but we also saw how grateful they are that they have been given a second chance by getting a new home. Seeing that and so many other things this week made me grateful for what I have been given.”
Other components of the program were “To Tell the Truth” and “Immigrant Family Panel Reflection.” In the former, participants listed to a panel of four people and try to determine which is a convicted felon. The latter is a panel where immigrant families share their stories. This year the event took place at El Flamboyan Restaurant and included dinner. Cambodian refugees, Dominican undocumented individuals and Phil Kellerman, president of Harvest of Hope and an advocate for migrants, participated.
During this year’s Community Connections, the students also introduced a new partnership between Sacred Heart University and Bridgeport’s North End. The partnership aims to promote and encourage a stronger relationship with residents of that area, many of whom reside close to some of Sacred Heart’s buildings. Community Connections participants helped distribute flyers and brochures promoting the partnership to neighbors. The goal is to encourage North End residents to visit SHU (residents receive discounted prices to on-campus events) and to identify service programs and projects for students—including providing help, such as yard work, to residents who need it. The program’s first project was cleanup at a school ball field.
Michelle Lyons, who serves on the Bridgeport City Council and was instrumental in developing the program, was pleased to see the students distributing information about the partnership to neighbors in the North End. “The partnership will bring stability and unity to the area,” said Lyons. “I believe it gives the students a stronger sense of commitment to their neighbors. It is positive for all of us—for Sacred Heart and for residents of the North End.”