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Students Write Grants for Community Agencies

Undergraduates Get Professional Experience in Service-Learning Class

Grant-writing student Charlette Renault-Caragianes tours the Lowell Transitional Living Center, her community client, with executive director Josh White.
Grant-writing student Charlette Renault-Caragianes tours the Lowell Transitional Living Center, her community client, with executive director Josh White.

By Katharine Webster

English major Julia Bellefontaine wants to work for a nonprofit arts organization when she graduates later this year, so she jumped at the chance to take a service-learning class in grant writing.

She picked the Brush Art Gallery & Studios in downtown Lowell as her community partner from a list provided by Assoc. Prof. Diana Archibald. Bellefontaine will work closely with the gallery’s executive director on a $2,500 grant application for an educational exhibit, from researching potential funding sources to crafting a winning pitch. She says it’s exactly the professional experience she needs. 

“I really want to go into this kind of writing,” Bellefontaine says. “It’s useful to be a grant writer when working for nonprofit organizations.”

The 15 students in Archibald’s class – the first undergraduate course in grant writing – dressed professionally to meet their community partners in person during a recent class. Some students had found their own agencies, while Archibald found others, selecting small nonprofits without grant writers on staff. 

“It’s so exciting to see the students’ light bulbs go on. There’s this point when they realize, ‘I’m being taken seriously. Someone’s counting on me,’ and they get terrified and excited all at once and they work hard, because it matters,” Archibald says.

Erin Freeborn, executive director of Communities for Restorative Justice in Concord, Mass., says her organization, which runs on volunteer passion and small donations, is seeking a grant to expand its services to the Lowell area. 

“Grant writing is a real, present need in the nonprofit community,” she says. “This class is also great for the students. It gives them skills and develops their civic engagement.”

Archibald, who is also the English Department’s internship coordinator, says community organizations frequently request interns who can help with grant writing, but until now, few students were qualified. Students will benefit from the class, too, because many employers are looking for communications staff with development experience.

“Service learning is that perfect balance of meeting students’ academic needs while meeting the community partners’ needs,” she says. 

Katie Stoll is a master’s degree candidate in Community Social Psychology and part-time program coordinator at Budget Buddies, a Chelmsford nonprofit that partners with other community agencies to offer classes for low-income women in managing money, from opening a bank account to paying off debt. Each woman also meets one-on-one with a volunteer coach. 

Budget Buddies is so successful that communities outside the Merrimack Valley have requested programs, but the nonprofit’s staff and volunteer program leaders are stretched thin. It’s seeking a grant of up to $25,000 to expand its reach.

“We don’t like to turn any organizations away,” Stoll says. “We’re looking for money to train the trainers, get our materials organized and consistent and figure out how to franchise or consult.”

Stoll took a graduate grant-writing class last semester and wrote a $10,000 proposal to help Budget Buddies work with housing authorities in Lawrence and its border towns. Now she’s looking forward to mentoring Kelsey Mennella, a senior English major.

“I just learned all this myself, so I’m excited to share it,” Stoll says. “Kelsey’s been very responsive so far. I’m looking forward to seeing the work she produces.” 

Mennella says Archibald’s service-learning classes are building her professional resume and portfolio. Her sophomore year, she took Community Writing I, in which the whole class worked on brochures and posters for the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Lowell. Then Mennella created a public service announcement for Community Teamwork Inc. – and added technical and graphic design skills to her repertoire.

“Taking her classes is really broadening my range,” she says.

Senior Bora Chhun, a philosophy major with a concentration in communications, is doubling down on grant writing this semester. He’s doing a service-learning internship for credit with Lowell’s Solid Waste & Recycling Office, where he’s helping write a grant for state funding to improve recycling at city schools. In Archibald’s class, he’s working with Diana Paskavitz Ross of the Grace Race Fund, a small Chelmsford nonprofit that supports a boarding school in Kenya with 200 students, including 40 orphans. The grant would pay for medicine, equipment and training for the school nurse.

“The more writing I do, the better my writing will be,” Chhun says. “I need to get as much experience as I can before I graduate.”

Ross, who earned her M.Ed. here in 1991, says she expects the learning to go both ways.

“It’s cool to come back to campus for this,” she says. “We’re very much aware we may not get any money – it’s definitely a bonus if we do – but it’s still very exciting to go through the process with a student. I’m hoping to learn a lot.”