As scores of volunteers prepare for the 20th anniversary of 9/11 and a National Day of Service and Remembrance, their work with communities in need underscores the ways in which Montclair State University has made service an integral part of the campus experience.
“That natural inclination to connect, elevate spaces, people and causes, is an altruistic gift,” says Precious Perez-Santiago, a sophomore Psychology major, who participates in the Bonner Leader program. “That experience, in itself, is unforgettable.”
Students are active in COVID-19 recovery efforts in New Jersey cities disproportionately affected by the pandemic. Partnering with local schools, students mentor students, and with community groups, aid the homeless and repair homes. On campus, they assist students with disabilities through the University’s Increasing Access to College Project.
For the 9/11 remembrance, the Montclair State Volunteer Center has organized nearly 20 off-campus sites and on-campus activities for volunteers. Service sites include stocking food pantries and sorting medical supplies.
Each year, more than 1,000 students are engaged in partnership with 200-plus community partners to seek solutions to real issues of public concern. The work includes Montclair State’s lead on AmeriCorps efforts to help the state recover from the pandemic, particularly in areas where the impacts of the pandemic – job loss, hunger, homelessness and limited access to medical and mental health care – are endemic.
Campus engagement is high, says Krystal Woolston, assistant director of the Center for Community Engagement, because “once you get to college, you’re not only just seeing the challenges in your community, you’re understanding the systemic ways that it got there. That helps to motivate our students because they not only get to volunteer, but they also get to understand why their communities are like that and how they can make an even more impactful change, when they are both pursuing their education and volunteering in their community.”
It’s the type of volunteerism that often continues long after students graduate. “They go on to pursue to be advocates in their communities to do service, to be committed to the things that they love,” Woolston says.
On the Montclair State campus, there are also students motivated to give back to reciprocate for the help they themselves have received, whether gifts from toy drives, or food and clothing.
“Personally, I came from a low-income area, and I totally benefited from holiday drives,” Woolston says. “You see the value when people have come to your community, and then you have a desire to say, ‘I’ve seen how this helped and now I get to be a part of that change. I get to be a part of that difference.’”
During the summer, Woolston was among the leaders of an orientation service trip, providing food and giving out clothing to the homeless in Atlantic City, and assisting a nonprofit in repairing group homes for people of differing abilities.
They also helped maintain homes for local residents, including a woman who needed help with her yard. “We spent a majority of the day trimming her hedges and trees, power washing her patio, picking up around the area and running from wasps,” Perez-Santiago says. “By the end of the day, we collected so many bags full of branches and leaves. I was really proud of the work that went into this.”
“One of the most rewarding things about service is seeing the smiles of the people we provided service to. I will never forget the smile of a woman whom we helped with fixing and painting her shed. The beauty of service is creating bonds with those whom you provide service to, and gaining wisdom from them,” says Mariana Luna-Martinez, a sophomore Biology major and Bonner Leader.
“The woman shared endless stories of her life and provided us with life lessons. The most important one was to enjoy life and make the best out of every second. Life goes fast and through her, I was able to learn and appreciate every second of the day. Whether it is eating ice cream or laughing with a friend, we must all enjoy those pockets of peace and life.”
Story by Staff Writer Marilyn Joyce Lehren.
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