Freshmen Get a Jump Start on Serving the Local Community

News Story: August 1, 2012
Freshman James Cusmano serves lunch
at the Merton Center in Bridgeport.

It’s just after 9:30 in the morning on a recent Thursday and a handful of school-age children and college students are shooting some baskets inside a small, modest gym with music booming from a nearby stereo. Laughter and the sound of sneakers echoes off the wooden floor as the hot sun pours through the windows at Golden Hill Methodist Church on this late August day.

At quick glance, it looks like another day at a summer camp but it isn’t – it’s a group with Community Connections, the special immersion program at Sacred Heart University for incoming freshmen led by senior students and faculty and staff that provides students with an introduction to service learning, an integral part of the university’s commitment to the community.

Students spend the last week prior to the beginning of the fall semester living at two sites in Bridgeport: the St. Charles Urban Center and Golden Hill Methodist Church. It gave participants a chance to sleep in humble surroundings in the midst of the neighborhoods they will serve.

For over a dozen years, Community Connections has empowered incoming freshmen to become engaged with the Bridgeport community and calls on them to live out the distinct mission of Sacred Heart – to help the greater world for the common good and become compassionate and learned individuals. This year, 43 SHU freshmen took part in Community Connections, while several senior students shepherded them throughout the week and will become their mentors throughout their first year at Sacred Heart.

“In some cases, it’s the first introduction to community service for incoming freshmen, but in most cases, they have been involved with community service whether it was with a youth group or with their high school,” said , assistant director of volunteer programs and service learning at Sacred Heart. “Community Connections gives incoming freshmen an opportunity to be part of service early on in their time at Sacred Heart and it often charts their course of volunteering and working side-by-side with the community of Bridgeport.”

SHU volunteers work at a Habitat for Humanity home on Wells Street in Bridgeport.


Days are packed with hard, arduous work from helping to renovate homes for Habitat for Humanity or meal preparation at area soup kitchens to working with the Sunshine Kids, which is composed of children whose parents suffer from terminal diseases, and volunteering with the elderly at Aging with Grace, run by Linda Strong a nursing professor at SHU.

As physically challenging as some of their work may be, it is equally rewarding and gives students a greater sense of self and the harsh realities some people who live in poverty experience on a daily basis.

Early on during their week, they were taken on a tour through Fairfield and Easton and got a taste of the Gold Coast and some of its wealth and privilege. Then they were hit with the sobering reality with a closer glimpse of parts of Bridgeport, homelessness and the day-to-day struggles people experience with inner-city living.

“I think that was very powerful, to first see very wealthy neighborhoods and then go to Bridgeport and see homelessness and people barely getting by but yet, they were happy and had a very positive attitude. I was struck by that,” said Juliana Villanella, a Long Beach, NY, native. “It’s amazing to see how different Fairfield and Bridgeport are even though they are so close together.”

Each day after their toils, students and leaders had moments of reflection where they pondered their experiences of the day and connected with one another. Other times, they spent their evening with a guest – for example, a man who was once incarcerated spoke to the group about the journey of his life after jail and his struggles to find employment and a place in society.
On another night, the students spent time in breakout groups grappling with the realities of living on the budget of the average Bridgeport resident and learning how to re-allocate money when circumstances change, such as when a child becomes sick or a car is in need of repairs.

But they also had moments of fun, like taking a tour of the Bridgeport Harbor and learning about the rich cultures that are part of the Bridgeport community, such as Puerto Rican food and salsa dancing. For Community Connections participant Theresa Bertolino, volunteering has always been part of her calculus. Instead of trick-or-treating on Halloween in elementary school, the North Attleboro, Mass., native would collect candy and dress up in costume and deliver the sweets to children in local shelters.

“I love that through Community Connections, we’re able to work directly with people, especially kids,” she said. “We’ve had the chance to meet incredible people who are working hard to make a better life for their families, some coming to this country not speaking any English.” For Bertolino, the most powerful aspect of the week was learning not to judge people by their appearance or where they live. “We met many people who live in homes built by Habitat for Humanity. Some of them have had a troubled past, but they want to make a future for themselves, for their families. To see that, and to understand what they want to do, is really incredible and puts my own life in perspective,” she explained.

Bertolino said the highlight of the week was the deep connection she quickly developed with her classmates and knowing that the work she performed will have long-term, positive effects on people she’ll never know. “It’s gratifying to help put up insulation in a house and know that it’s going to help keep people warm in the winter,” she said.

When the week came to the close and students had time for final reflection, it wasn’t viewed as the end of something special, but as the beginning of a commitment to the neighborhoods that are just minutes from Sacred Heart and to the bonds of friendship that are sure to surpass their tenure at Sacred Heart.

“I think this week has inspired me; it put things in a new perspective for me. I met incredible people, and I learned never to judge a book by its cover, because you never know how people live or what it’s like a day in their shoes,” concluded Villanella.