Incoming Freshmen Kick Off College Career With Week of Volunteerism

News Story: August 1, 2011
From left, freshmen Paige Ryan and Matthew Cole, along with sophomore team leader Conor Cassidy, loaded scaffolding onto a truck at the site of the Habitat for Humanity house on Jane Street in Bridgeport during Community Connections.

A group of Sacred Heart University freshmen packed their bags a week before the start of the new semester and embarked on the school’s annual Community Connections service-immersion program. For nearly 20 years, this outreach program, designed to reinforce Sacred Heart’s commitment to developing leaders and community volunteers, has kicked off the academic year.

“The popularity of the program has grown every year. This year, we had more than 115 applications for 48 open spots,” said , assistant director of Volunteer Programs. The 48 freshmen, 14 student leaders and staff from Campus Ministry and Volunteer Programs will spend August 27 through September 2 volunteering at a variety of programs in Bridgeport.

Cook said the students, who heard about the program during orientation back in June, were selected based on their previous volunteer experience. “Because we had such a wonderful field of candidates, we were able to look for extraordinary experience. We have students who have done missions in places like Guatemala, Africa and the Dominican Republic and others who have mentored children or worked with AIDS patients,” she said. “We tried to create a group of students who can learn from each other.”

The Community Connections team spent the week living at two Bridgeport sites – the Golden Hill Methodist United Church and the St. Charles Catholic Urban Center. The week began with a welcome luncheon and send-off service on the University’s Fairfield campus. During the week, the students participated in a range of volunteer activities from working on the Sacred Heart-sponsored Habitat for Humanity house on Jane Street and serving as teacher assistants at Marin and Columbus schools to cooking and serving at Golden Hill’s community supper. The students also brought canned goods with them from home to donate to the city’s food banks.

Freshmen and student leaders sorted clothing donations at the Bridgeport Rescue Mission's warehouse.

“We want to expose the students to the variety of services projects that are available to them during the school year. Our goal this coming academic year is to have students and staff donate 50,000 hours of community service,” Cook said. “We always hear how much our students love giving back, and all indications are that this incoming freshman class will be no different.”

Cook noted that since this is an immersion program, the students participate in local community events as well as doing volunteer work. Activities included attending a mass spoken in Spanish, cheering on the Bridgeport Bluefish at a game, taking Latin dancing lessons provided by Latin Rhythms Dance Studio, dining on Puerto Rican food and taking a tour of Bridgeport’s Habitat neighborhoods.

“We want the students to realize that Bridgeport is a diverse community with many different cultures and religions. We want to expose them to some things they may not have experienced before,” Cook said. “We incorporated a social justice theme into the program this year so that students understand what it takes to support a family in Bridgeport. We also want them to see that Bridgeport is a vibrant community filled with very special people.”

Throughout the week, the students will invited the community members they work with to a barbecue on the lawn of the St. Charles Rectory. The event was a thank you to the community for hosting the Community Connections team. The students were responsible for planning the event, preparing the food and organizing games and activities for the kids. In addition, the Bridgeport Young Adult Police Commissioners, made up of students from elementary school through high school, performed skits depicting the reality of life in the Bridgeport schools. Topics included gang violence and bullying.

Now that the program has ended, the freshmen will be mentored for the rest of the year by one of the student leaders. Vinnie Costella, ’13, a student leader for the second consecutive year, said that the mentoring might be his favorite part of the program. “It’s great to see the freshmen get involved and find out what Sacred Heart has to offer before school even starts, but I really love the mentoring component of the program,” he said. “I love checking in on them and getting texts with random questions. There is not much of an age difference between us and them, so you end up making really great friends who you will be close to throughout your college years and beyond.”