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Hundreds of CCRI volunteers help local nonprofit agencies on Community Service Day
April 14, 2015
While the weather vacillated from drizzle to downright downpour all day, 250 volunteers from the CCRI community fanned out across the state to help nine community organizations during its ninth annual Community Service Day.
"The conditions are adverse, but that's one of the things we do here – overcome adversity," said Theresa LaPerche, volunteer coordinator and Americorps VISTA at House of Hope CDC in Warwick, a women's first-step shelter.
Led by site coordinator Camille Numrich, coordinator of career services, the 35 volunteers at House of Hope spent their day covered in rain ponchos working outside on the grounds and in the garden, where they cleared debris, turned over soil, trimmed trees and scraped peeling paint off of fences to spruce up the yard in time for spring.
"There's really a sense of satisfaction for me because I believe in what we're doing," said Numrich. "But, particularly, most of the nonprofits we work with don't have the funding or staff to do it on their own. So volunteering really counts. And once you volunteer once, it's easier to go back and do it again."
Founding Executive Director Jean Johnson recalled that when the organization began some 26 years ago, it was an all-volunteer organization, later drawing some of its first employees from CCRI. "There are always a variety of things that are needed in a facility like this, and we're so grateful for the help today," she said.
Most of the students on hand came from the Dental Assisting Program, accompanied by their program director, Associate Professor Kerri Friel. Nicole Renzi, one of Friel's students, said that this was her first time participating in CSD, and noted that "being able to improve the surroundings and put a smile on the residents' faces" truly brightened an otherwise gray day.
Others, like Nursing student Pinanong Newton, who was out in the garden wielding clippers to tease a tree back to life, said they were motivated to volunteer to pay it forward. "I got a scholarship to attend CCRI, so I always want to give back to the community. I'm very busy, but I always find time to do this," she said.
Things were a little warmer, though no less busy, at the Steamship Historical Society of America down the road in Warwick. The unassuming building on Post Road opened up inside to reveal room upon room of treasures from a fascinating legacy that still holds relevance today. Executive Director Matthew Schulte gave a tour of the facility to CCRI President Ray Di Pasquale, Vice President for Academic Affairs Greg Lamontagne and site director Richard Coren, director of Marketing and Communications. "Ninety percent of our goods come to us today via water," he said.
Though the nonprofit itself has roots stretching to the 1930s, it has come a long way from an all-volunteer enthusiast organization to a staffed operation that hopes to open its doors to researchers and the general public for the first time in late May. Objects, artifacts, scratch models, rooms stuffed to the gills with Tupperware containers full of donated items from estates and attics are in the process of getting catalogued, organized and preserved.
In front of a periodicals shelf lined with titles such as "American Tugboat Review" and "The Quarterdeck," student Kenneth Rindeikis worked alongside Annie Kennedy, coordinator for special projects in the CCRI president's office. Both professed history buffs, they were sorting piles of postcards into categories.
"I'm just fascinated by all the history behind all of these ships," said Rindeikis, dropping a postcard into a pile for cards depicting a harbor in a foreign country.
"Our staff is extremely small," said Astrid Drew, who works in collections care and organization for the society as well as running its social media presence. She expressed gratitude for the work that the 20-some volunteers would get done that day: "Having volunteers come in and help me do a broad sweep of work at once is making me breathe easier. This is work that would take me weeks and weeks to do on my own."
Downstairs, Admissions Officer Sue Barrett manned a desk with shipmate and SPATE Director Diane Nobles, gingerly opening up old and creaky books to see if they had unearthed sunken treasure. The two were clicking around ABEbooks.com, an online book antiquities site, to get the current value of the books in the collection. "It's hard not to open them up and start reading," said Nobles, who has two sons in the maritime and an interest in genealogy. "And it's so nice of the college to support this project."
"Not many companies do that," added Barrett.
Upstairs, Lamontagne had strayed from the tour and was thumbing through old Life magazines, amused at some of the advertisements. "It's miraculous to see people give back like this," he said, examining the cover of an issue from the '70s bemoaning the unrest in the Middle East. "The students, staff – they're all engaged. It's really emphasizing the community in community college."
Di Pasquale, whose inauguration week celebration included the first CSD, concurred. "When you think about community colleges across the nation – we're built to be in the community. It's our opportunity to give back. These agencies become our friends for life, and it's really an eye-opening experience."
Brenda Pacheco, program assistant to the Office of Student Life, has been a site leader since the service day's beginnings. Like many participants, she chose to be at a site that hit close to home in one way or another – in her case, the Ronald McDonald House in Providence is not even a mile from her home. As she helped ready the site for the 10 volunteers she would have coming to help with deep cleaning of the common spaces in the house, which provides a refuge for families whose children are in the hospitals across the street, she, like Lamontagne and Di Pasquale reflected on the college's name: "To me, doing this really lets you know why the word 'community' is such a big part of CCRI."
Joanna Powers, volunteer coordinator at the Ronald McDonald house, sat in the calming lobby of the 18-bedroom facility, which resembles a real home more than a temporary setting. Books line the shelves, overstuffed chairs sit in corners by reading lamps. "This is the first time CCRI has been here to volunteer, but we depend on community groups to come in all year long. Everything done by our volunteers is specifically for the families staying here at the house, and it helps a lot," she said.
Tucked away in a quiet neighborhood in Cranston, another site felt more like a residence than a nonprofit organization. That's because Gotta Have Soul, a foundation started in 2010 by a then-12-year-old Nicholas Lowinger, has its headquarters in the family's home. Gotta Have Soul solicits lists from shelters across the country and individually gifts a pair of shoes of the precise size needed for each child. Shoes come with socks, a tag with each child's name on it and an individualized card of encouragement.
There are 2.5 million homeless children in America, said Nicholas's mother, Lori, as volunteers squeezed in and out between floor-to-ceiling racks of shoes in the family garage. "We've sent shoes to 37 states, serving 32,000 children, but that's just a drop in the bucket," she said.
What began as a bar mitzvah project quickly ballooned into a tremendous undertaking, and the Lowingers have risen to the challenge, processing donations directly from major retailers such as Zappos as well as the shoe companies themselves. When they can't fill an order with their donated stock, they take trips out to outlet malls, buying out entire floors with money from grants and other donations.
Nicholas, now a junior at the Wheeler School in Providence, couldn't be there because he was in class. But his enthusiasm for this cause had clearly made its way into the CCRI volunteers on hand. Site coordinator Deb Zielinski, assistant to Di Pasquale, was clearly moved as she spoke of the mission and the work she and the other 38 volunteers were able to do during the day. "It's an experience unlike any other I've had," she said.
"This makes you feel so humble," said Brenda Andrade, professor in the Library, after her shift had ended. "I'm so grateful for all that I have. These kids who don't have shoes can't even get to school – they need these."
"I hope these kids see that other people really do care," chimed in Terrie Celentano, executive assistant to Lamontagne.
Down in Middletown, Newport Campus Coordinator Robyn Greene got to see the impact of volunteering with the next generation firsthand. She and 10 other volunteers worked at the Sandpipers Early Learning Center at Child and Family Services of Newport, where they "participated in activities ranging from rocking a 2-month-old baby to sleep to dancing with 5-year-olds," she said.
"Newport has a very active network of community service agencies and we work together on many initiatives. To be able to help one of our community partners, especially one like Child and Family Services who offers services to so many and does it in such a professional manner, was a pleasure," said Greene.
Other sites served that day were the General Nathaniel Greene Homestead Association in Coventry, where volunteers raked and cleaned the expansive grounds at the site; NeighborWorks Blackstone River Valley in Woonsocket, where volunteers filled 120 lawn bags with wet leaves from a community park; the Providence Children's Museum, where volunteers were happy to be out of the rainy weather helping to make decorations for the museum's upcoming annual gala; and Rhode Island Family Shelter in Warwick, where volunteers cleaned and organized the shelter and kitchen areas.