Surrounded by racks and cases of canned goods and other foodstuffs, Olivia Martel, community programs coordinator in Princeton’s Office of the Dean of the Graduate School, efficiently grabbed cans of green beans, corn and soup from a long table and tucked them neatly into a paper bag.
“What will create a balanced meal? How can I maximize flavors?” she wondered as she checked expiration dates and readied bags of donated food for senior citizens to pick up at HomeFront’s food pantry in Lawrenceville, New Jersey.
Soon a row of more than 40 bags was ready for staff to share with HomeFront’s clients. “Oftentimes when we donate food, we drop it off in a box and eventually it goes somewhere, but here I am a room away from someone picking up the bag I just put together,” Martel said. “That is really special and meaningful to me.”
From Jan. 2 through Feb. 2, Martel and more than 160 Princeton University staff, faculty, students and alumni served in the community, learned new service skills, and reflected about the impact of service and civic engagement as part of the University’s annual Month of Service.
Month of Service 2018 was coordinated by the Pace Center for Civic Engagement and co-sponsored by the Office of Community and Regional Affairs and Community Works, an educational organization providing training for nonprofit boards, staff and volunteers.
Month of Service provided the opportunity to participate in service with a wide range of community organizations, including: the Pace Center’s Community House program; Habitat for Humanity of Burlington County and Greater Trenton-Princeton; HomeFront; Mercer Street Friends; Princeton Nursery School; Trenton Area Soup Kitchen; and the Trenton Digital Initiative.
“Service is a central part of who we are at Princeton,” said Kimberly de los Santos, the Pace Center’s John C. Bogle ’51 and Burton G. Malkiel *64 Executive Director. “In service we learn about ourselves, about the community and about how to make positive change in the world around us. Month of Service shares this learning experience with the entire University community, so that we can all connect and learn from one another, while at the same time meeting real needs in our community.”
Alumni in service around the country
This year, the Alumni Council Committee on Community Service launched a companion initiative: “Tigers in Service.” The committee invited each regional area, class and affiliate alumni association to plan a community service event or project during the January/February time frame. The goal of "Tigers in Service" is to encourage alumni to learn and engage through service opportunities.
“So far more than 20 groups are on board to complete a service project this winter,” said Laura Bartels, Class of 1998 and chair of the Alumni Council Committee on Community Service. “For example, the Princeton Club of Kansas City came together to help sort and package donated goods at a local food bank. The Princeton Club of Southern Florida is serving meals at a local homeless shelter … and the Princeton Area Alumni Association has organized an ongoing collection of used computers from individuals and institutions, to distribute to disadvantaged youth both at home and in the classroom.”
Bartels added that at an upcoming mini-reunion, the Class of 1993 is launching a book drive to support youth summer reading programs, a project they adopted for their 25th reunion. The committee encourages any alumni groups participating in a service event to share their plans through a Community Service Projects form.
Serving Princeton’s community
For faculty, staff and students on campus, Month of Service provided an opportunity to get to know the local community, lend a helping hand and fulfill the University’s informal motto: “In the nation’s service and the service of humanity.”
“I literally could not do what I do without volunteers,” said Ruthann Traylor, director of ArtSpace and Sewing Space at HomeFront, which helps homeless families build lives of self-respect, stability and independence through a variety of programs that provide shelter, nourishment, education and more. “They come with ideas, they come with skills, they come with time and talents. They help us complete our mission. … We literally work with thousands of volunteers to change thousands of lives.”
“January is a time when many of our community partners are in need of additional support, since students are focused on exams and many take time away from campus on break,” added Charlotte Collins, Pace Center associate director and staff adviser for the Community House program, which works with families to provide academic and social and emotional support for underrepresented youth in Princeton. “Month of Service offers a way for the entire campus community to step in.”
Some participants volunteered on their own. Tessa Desmond, associate research scholar and lecturer with the Program in American Studies, served at HomeFront’s food pantry in Lawrenceville and the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen in Trenton, New Jersey. The experience helped her better understand what students will encounter when they serve with local food pantries, soup kitchens and school cafeterias as part of her “Consuming America” freshman seminar with the Community-Based Learning Initiative. A newcomer to the Princeton area, she also appreciated the opportunity to get to know more about her neighbors and community.
“So many of us are working on pressing and important problems that have implications far outside the University, but we can quickly become distanced from the world in which our solutions could be realized. … [Service] brings me in better tune with the aims of my work and makes me better at staying focused on why what I do at the University is so important,” Desmond said. “Service in the community matters. It matters to the people who are served, it matters to the organizations who are behind serving and it matters to the people we serve alongside.”
Others teamed up to serve together. Marie Burns, executive assistant in the Office of the Vice President for Facilities, took part in a group volunteer effort at HomeFront’s food pantry and warehouse. Together, staff from the Office of Sustainability, Building Services, Facilities Financial and Administrative Services, the Office of Real Estate Development, and the Office of the Vice President for Facilities packed bags with a week’s worth of groceries, sorted children’s pajamas and organized marketing materials.
“We had a lovely time sorting through boxes of pajamas for baby girls, but it was a bittersweet moment,” Burns said. “As we folded these cozy little clothes, it was sad to imagine babies growing up without a stable home and without resources to support their growth. We started to ask more about the mothers and babies who come to HomeFront and found that they are in need of diapers, especially for larger babies. It inspired us to get involved and to organize a diaper drive around Mother’s Day to help stock the new diaper pantry.”
Learning through service
In addition to direct service, Month of Service provided staff, faculty, students and alumni with the opportunity to learn new skills, explore important issues and discover why service matters — on a personal level and more broadly. Workshops shared tools like the Field Guide to Service, which provides simple steps and exercises to help everyone prepare for service, engage more effectively, and reflect and learn from their experiences. Other workshops focused on topics like Coalition Building Through Service and Allyship Through Service, to offer insights and new approaches on working with others to advance service and civic engagement goals.
“I signed up for the Coalition Building and Allyship workshops because I’m always thinking about these issues in my own community engagement and activism,” said Pooja Makhijani, communications manager with the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies. “[Month of Service] allows faculty, students and staff to not only engage with the community off campus, but also examine the ways in which inequalities and bias can manifest themselves on campus and in our working lives.”
Weekly reflection lunches enabled people to learn from each other and unpack what they encountered throughout the month.
“For me it’s been an opportunity to step back and look at the world from another perspective,” said Jaclyn Sweet, communications associate at the Lewis Center for the Arts. “Participating in service has often served me in terms of resetting my attitude. … We often have so many ideas about what is ‘best’ or ‘helpful’ but actually getting into a space, meeting the staff and volunteers, and learning about the inner works of a system enables you to best partner along with their mission.”
Month of Service even included a tour of Trenton, which focused on illuminating the city's strengths and struggles. Facilitated by David Brown, an assistant director at the Pace Center and native Trentonian, the tour featured stops at Anchor Link, an outreach center run by nonprofit Anchor House which aims to reduce the incidence of runaway homelessness, the Italian People’s Bakery, and South Riverwalk Park along the waterfront.
“I signed up for the tour because, upon reflecting on my fall semester, I realized that I rarely engaged with the world beyond Princeton during school,” said Jimin Kang, a first-year student. “Over winter break, I decided that one of my goals for the spring semester would be to increase my community engagement by leaving the ‘orange bubble.’ When I found out about the Month of Service … I thought it'd be the perfect opportunity to put this goal into practice.”
“The most striking aspect of the tour for me was its conclusion,” added Katie Reed, a junior and volunteer with El Centro, a Student Volunteers Council service project that teaches English as a second language classes in Trenton each week. “After spending the morning visiting different sites and discussing the challenges and opportunities faced by the city, we came to the final stop, a vantage point from which we could see many of the various issues we had discussed, juxtaposed sharply. There was a baseball stadium built to attract jobs and visitors, a tunnel built for a then-aborted trash incinerator project, social services buildings, higher-end housing for commuters, public housing projects. It was so impactful to see all of the ways in which Trenton’s future has been imagined and reimagined in the face of seemingly intractable problems.”
After Month of Service, many participants shared gratitude for the opportunity to take part and were inspired about further involvement in service at Princeton or in their own home communities.
“It’s reminded me of how much I want to get involved in a more regular way and introduce my children to this experience,” said Michael Olin, senior associate director of graduate alumni relations for the Office of Alumni Affairs. “I’ve done volunteering before, but so many things about life and your schedule get in the way. It’s reminded me how important it is for me and my family to jumpstart that again.”
“Our informal motto serves as a key guiding principle,” added Peter Chalfin, assistant director for leadership gifts in the Office of Advancement. “There are so many departments and centers and facets of campus that don’t always get to interact with each other, but they are all responsible for some part of the mission of the University. I love that this is a University-wide effort. It’s a great way to connect people.”