Brianna Atwood Started Project Her First Semester

Brianna Atwood talks to students at St. Pat's about their poetry. Image by K. Webster
Honors student Brianna Atwood started a volunteer program at the St. Patrick School in Lowell.

By Katharine Webster

Honors student Brianna Atwood grew up in Andover with a nun for a neighbor, first in the other half of her family’s duplex and then down the street.

When Sister Joanne Sullivan, the principal of the St. Patrick School in Lowell’s Acre neighborhood, found out Atwood was coming to UMass Lowell for plastics engineering, she asked her to help out at St. Patrick’s, which serves children in preschool through eighth grade.

Then Julian Zabalbeascoa, Atwood’s professor for the First-Year Seminar in Honors (FYSH), told his students community service would fulfill an assignment to explore Lowell. Atwood called Sullivan and asked what kind of help she needed at St. Patrick’s. Within a couple of weeks, Atwood had found more than a dozen UML students, mostly freshmen, to volunteer at the school.

“Sister Joanne was always urging me to make a connection between the schools – so I did,” Atwood says.

Sister Joanne Sullivan, principal of St. Patrick's, and Brianna Atwood Image by K. Webster
Sister Joanne Sullivan, principal of St. Patrick's, and Brianna Atwood, who leads the student volunteer program.
The volunteer program is now entering its third year, bringing about 20 UML students to St. Patrick’s each semester who commit to working two hours a week, every week, at the same time. The undergraduates tutor and translate for children who don’t speak English at home, and they also provide general classroom help. 

“The kids love having the one-on-one attention and help, and they look forward every week to the college students coming,” Sullivan says. “Consistency is so important: The kids get to know the volunteers, the volunteers get to know the kids, and the teacher might be able to plan a project that needs an extra pair of hands.”

Atwood posts fliers around East Campus at the start of each semester, seeking volunteers. In fall 2016, most of the women’s basketball team signed on, splitting up to cover three shifts every week. They’re doing it again this fall.

“The kids loved it. They thought it was the coolest thing ever, having the UMass Lowell women’s basketball team there,” Atwood says.

Lily Gillette helps a student learn English from a picture book. Image by K. Webster
Volunteer Lily Gillette teaches a student English using a picture book.
Although St. Patrick’s is a Catholic school, it is very diverse. Sullivan says 90 percent of her students come from immigrant families that span continents and religions, including Catholicism, other Christian denominations, Islam, Buddhism and more. Some are refugees from Africa who need to learn English, while others come from homes where their first language is Spanish, Portuguese, Burmese or Khmer. 

Once Atwood realized how many languages the children spoke, she started advertising it on her fliers. She found volunteers who were happy to work with children who didn’t yet speak English well – or at all. The volunteers are an equally diverse group that includes some Jewish and Muslim undergraduates.

“We’ve had a lot of international students who volunteer, and they’re able to tutor and translate for the kids,” she says. “In one case, a Brazilian child hadn’t shown up for two weeks, and the school didn’t know what had happened. One of our volunteers, Manny Campos, who’s from Brazil, called the parents, spoke to them in Portuguese and found out that the child was really sick.” 

Atwood, who studied Spanish in middle school and high school, tutors older students in math, helps out with gym class and occasionally teaches as a substitute.

Sister Joanne Sullivan on the playground with fourth-graders at recess. Image by K. Webster
Sister Joanne and fourth-graders play four-square at recess.
Atwood and the UML volunteers also ran a clothing drive for the school last winter. Many of the children at St. Patrick’s come from very low-income or newly arrived refugee families, and they couldn’t go outside for recess because they lacked winter coats, boots, hats or gloves, she says.

“Some of the children were coming to school wearing only T-shirts and shorts,” Atwood says. 

Atwood plans to keep running the volunteer program as long as she’s at UMass Lowell – at least three more years, since she’s already taken a semester off to do a professional co-op and she will need extra time to complete three minors: business, math and business administration for engineers. She also plans to earn her master’s degree here.

Before she graduates, she hopes to make the volunteer effort a student club or a partnership with the Honors College, to keep the program going.

Meanwhile, she’s already recruiting the next generation of volunteers from the Commonwealth Honors Living-Learning Community, where she’s a resident assistant. When she found out several of her freshmen residents were taking FYSH with Zabalbeascoa, she urged them to do community service at St. Patrick’s.

“The St. Patrick’s students love seeing the UMass Lowell students,” she says. “Having us come in and tutor them and also talk to them about going to college and having a bright future and how important it is to stay in school – that inspires them.”