Students Help Local Organization Meet Community Demand
By Katharine Webster
Shortly before Thanksgiving 2018, Honors College Dean Jim Canning sent out an email seeking students to volunteer at Central Food Ministry, a food pantry in Lowell’s Centralville neighborhood that serves thousands of people each year.
More than a dozen students filled shifts over several days, including Joseph Calles, an honors computer science major who’d transferred to UMass Lowell a couple of months earlier and was looking for a volunteer opportunity. He’s been working at Central Food Ministry, or CFM, ever since.
“This is my home base. I feel really comfortable here,” Calles said on a recent Tuesday morning, after unloading donated groceries from the CFM van. “I also feel at home in the Honors College, so I thought I’d combine my two homes.”
That Thanksgiving, CFM was able to serve more than 70 families – almost twice as many as usual – thanks to the Honors College initiative, says Gretchen Gallimore, CFM’s executive director.
Since then, the college’s involvement has grown. This past fall, Canning invited students to sign up for shifts at CFM – just a quick walk across the river from University Suites, the residence hall for the Commonwealth Honors Living-Learning Community – or at Merrimack Valley Food Bank, two blocks from South Campus, where students help to load up the CFM van.
Canning also offered two $1,200 Honors College Fellowships for students who could help CFM in other ways. Calles got one, to recruit more honors students as volunteers. Morgan Engdahl, a psychology major, received the other to help CFM update its website and social media. Both will help Gallimore to write a grant, too.
“Service is really important to me,” says Engdahl, who also volunteers for Crisis Textline. “I’ve had a lot of struggles, and I feel like I have more of a purpose when I’m doing something to benefit other people’s lives.”
Central Food Ministry, sponsored by The Lutheran Church of the Savior in Bedford, served 14,620 people in 4,696 households during the fiscal year ending June 30, 2019, Gallimore says. Each client must first sit down with a volunteer to fill out an emergency food assistance form; then, other volunteers fill a box with groceries for them. The pantry is open three mornings and one evening a week.
“Having the UMass Lowell students show up pretty consistently helps me plan,” Gallimore says. “I have enough food to serve about 40 families each day, but before, there weren’t always enough volunteers to get the food to them.”
The Honors College-CFM partnership began with the help of former honors psychology student Edina Hirt ’19, ’21, now a graduate student in the Autism Studies Program, and Assoc. Teaching Prof. Susan Thomson Tripathy in sociology.
Hirt took Tripathy’s honors seminar, Homelessness: Lowell and Mumbai, three years ago. The service-learning class requires students to volunteer at one of three Lowell nonprofits serving homeless people.
Hirt volunteered at all three, and then, advised by Tripathy, she updated and relaunched the university’s Community Connections website for her honors capstone project. The website allows UMass Lowell students to easily find volunteer opportunities in the community.
Hirt also accompanied Tripathy to monthly meetings of the city’s Hunger & Homelessness Commission, on which Gallimore also serves. When Gallimore said she needed more volunteers before Thanksgiving 2018, Hirt and Tripathy asked Canning and the Honors College staff to put out the call.
“We thought it would be doable and manageable for the students – a one-time commitment and a good way to get more honors students involved,” Tripathy says.
Now Hirt and Tripathy will mentor the two fellowship students: Hirt as peer support and Tripathy as their academic advisor. Calles and Engdahl will be reading and discussing articles by sociologists about food and poverty, writing about their experiences and doing a verbal presentation at the end of the year.
Calles says his main goal is to get more honors students to volunteer regularly.
“Some people volunteer for one day and it makes them feel really good, but that’s not that helpful,” he says. “I want to give people a reason to continue coming consistently, because that’s what we need – systemic support.”
Sometimes, that one day of volunteering is enough to bring students back. Diana Whitcomb, a first-year honors nursing student, volunteered after Canning sent out an email asking students to volunteer “just once” last fall. The next time she saw the dean, she asked if she could sign up again.
“He said, ‘Yes! That’s what I’m trying to get people to do,’” Whitcomb says.
Whitcomb volunteered weekly at CFM for the rest of the semester, in addition to working at the campus food pantry for her work-study job. A first-generation college student, she says her family depended on food stamps and hand-me-down clothes while she was growing up, and sometimes they visited food pantries when their food stamps didn’t stretch far enough. She’s grateful for the opportunity to serve others in turn.
“I really like this,” she says. “It’s very fulfilling.”