Incoming Freshmen Spend Week of Volunteering in Local Bridgeport Community

Freshmen serve food during a community dinner at Feel the Warmth soup kitchen in Bridgeport.

News Story: August 26, 2014

Last week, 17 Sacred Heart University upperclassmen escorted 60 incoming freshmen into Bridgeport to work with the homeless and those otherwise in need. The work was part of SHU’s Community Connections urban outreach program, which immerses students in the local cultures and teaches the value of leadership and giving back to the community.

“Community Connections allows incoming students to be face-to-face with Bridgeport residents and to learn from and about their lives,” says Phyllis Machledt, founding director of the Office of Volunteer Programs and Service Learning, who created the pre-fall program in 1996. “Students find places and events in Bridgeport that they wouldn’t have known about if they hadn’t been a part of Community Connections. This outreach helps students get to know themselves and understand that they can make a difference, and that‘s important.”

Three local churches hosted the SHU students—Golden Hill Methodist Church, St. Charles Parish and United Congregationalist Church. “All three churches make a significant impact in the Bridgeport area with their outreach programs,” says Matthew Kaye, director of the Office of Volunteer Programs and Service Learning. “We are honored to partner with them in fulfilling the Sacred Heart University mission, and to contribute to their efforts.”

The students assisted several local non-profit organizations and outreach programs, including Habitat for Humanity, Feel the Warmth (United Congregationalist Church), Daughters of Charity, Hall Neighborhood House, St. Stephens Food Pantry, St. Margaret’s Shrine and Caroline House.

“Exploring the idea of social justice, income inequality and access to basic needs are core themes to Community Connections,” Kaye says. “Students make real connections with churches that are very invested in supporting those who do not have the same resources as the rest of us.”

Students also embarked on a boat tour of Captain’s Cove, where they learned the history of Bridgeport as a port city, and had the opportunity to learn salsa dancing and to eat a traditional Puerto Rican dinner.

“When we got to know the Puerto Rican families and sat down to eat with them, we made real connections with great Bridgeport residents,” says sophomore nursing major Jackie Galeno. “It opened my eyes to the rich cultures that surround the University. I wouldn’t have known all the great things that go on in Bridgeport if it hadn’t been for Community Connections.”

Megan Houlihan-Aceto, a 2005 SHU graduate and now associate director of the Office of Volunteer Programs and Service Learning, led the planning of the Community Connections activities, including the logistics of feeding, lodging and transporting 77 undergraduate students.  “Community Connections is a great opportunity for me to help incoming freshman create a strong foundation for their next four years,” Houlihan says.

“At first I was scared being exposed to something so new right out of high school,” says freshman Mercy Yalartai. “But it was amazing learning from the community, learning from the struggles of some of the people who live here.” She recommends that all incoming students try working with Community Connections and says she is already looking forward to doing more work with the program and with the United Congregationalist Church.

Echoing that sentiment, freshmen Stefanie Falcone says, “When I first arrived I was nervous, but now I can say it was one of the best weeks of my life.” She has already signed on to work with SHU’s Adopt a Grandparent group, which volunteers at Bridgeport’s Northbridge Health Care Center.

The second phase of Community Connection commences during the academic year, when the student leaders mentor the freshmen participants. “Having a mentor opens the door for freshmen to be more engaged both on and off campus,” says senior social work major Stephanie Nickerson, a Community Connections student leader. “It also creates a support network that is immediately available during their first weeks as a college student. It made all the difference for me.”

This is the first time that the University has invested operating funds for the program as it is no longer funded by grants. “We strongly believe in this immersion program that introduces students to the rich cultures that can be found in the communities surrounding our campus and also reinforces the importance of community service,” said SHU President John J. Petillo. 

To view additional photos from the week of service, click here