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First-Years See a Boston Beyond the Comfort Zone

Revisiting the community: volunteers clock 13,000 service hours before classes start

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First-Year Student Outreach Project volunteers work in the kitchen of Community Servings, an organization that delivers meals to homebound AIDS patients. Photo by Vicky Waltz

The ways Boston University students reach into the community around us are an ongoing source of fascination — and good journalism. These connections and collaborations might at first glance seem to be one-way streets, but as each of the stories from the past school year we’re highlighting this week reveals, give and take, offering and receiving, are intimately linked.

It’s easy to spot the first batch of freshmen arriving at Boston University. They are on campus a full week before classes begin, they travel about the city in large white vans, they wear matching T-shirts, and every now and then they spontaneously break into song and dance.

Those participating in the First-Year Student Outreach Project (FYSOP) may stand out from their fellow freshmen, but for them — and for the 170 upperclassmen who return each year as staff members — the volunteer program is an integral part of the BU experience.

“I can’t imagine beginning a new school year without FYSOP,” said staff member Himali Gandhi (CAS’09).

In August 2008 FYSOP, run by the Community Service Center, celebrated its 19th year at BU by welcoming 600 members of the Class of 2012. Each student selected one of nine issue areas — children, disabilities, elders, the environment, gender focus, HIV/AIDS awareness, homelessness and housing, human rights, and hunger — and spent three days volunteering at one of 69 sites throughout greater Boston. By the end of the week, they had clocked more than 13,000 hours of service.

On Wednesday, the Boston Children’s Museum was overrun by children of all ages — and 20 FYSOP volunteers. With 75,000 square feet of colorful, noisy, interactive exhibitions, the museum is an enormous indoor playground, and the students delighted in it almost as much as the giggling toddlers playing in the Construction Zone.

In honor of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, the museum’s had a special exhibition, Children of Hangzhou: Connecting with China, which examined contemporary China through life in the city of Hangzhou. Rachel Farkas, the museum’s Asia program associate, separated the FYSOP volunteers into five groups, each concentrating on a different Chinese tradition.

Elyse Dupre (COM’12) of Milwaukee, Wis., had difficulty keeping up with the demand for the Chinese hand drums she was making out of paper cups, chopsticks, yarn, and beads. “Kids love to make noise, so of course they like the drums,” said Dupre, who was surrounded by a small crowd of children.

Nearby, Katherine Zhao (CAS’12) of Boston and Alyssa Shames (CAS’12) of Great Falls, Va., helped children make Chinese paper cuttings. “I have a lot of paper cuttings at home, and I like arts and crafts,” Zhao said. “It’s interesting to learn about the different symbols. In China, bats represent good luck.”

Outside, Gandhi and Phil Ramos (CGS’10) of Middletown, N.J., were building the Great Wall of China out of cardboard boxes. Stepping back, Ramos observed their handiwork. Taller than long, the wall more closely resembled the Leaning Tower of Pisa. “The Great Wall of China is long, not tall!” Ramos told a little boy. “Do you want to knock down the tower and help us rebuild?” His blue eyes widening, the child nodded and sprinted to the tower, gleefully ramming it with his head.

While many volunteers join FYSOP for the community service experience, others sign up to make new friends before the semester begins. “BU is so big, I worried that I’d have a hard time meeting friends,” Shames said. “But I really relate to the people in FYSOP. I fit in with them.”

The next morning, students working in the HIV/AIDS awareness group donned aprons and hairnets and prepared to spend the day in the kitchen of Community Servings, a nonprofit that delivers free home-cooked meals to homebound patients with AIDS and other life-threatening illnesses. With 725 families to feed and more than 1,300 meals to prepare, Community Servings depends strongly on its volunteer base, said Rebecca Ober, the organization’s volunteer recruitment coordinator. “Most of our clients live at or below the poverty line,” she said. “And for many, this is the only meal they eat.”

The students washed their hands and headed to the kitchen. They filled plastic trays with veal stew, mashed potatoes, mixed vegetables, and vanilla pudding.

“This is great,” said Sarah Collier (SAR’12) of Natick, Mass. “My hometown is pretty affluent, so there aren’t many community service opportunities there. I’m doing stuff I would have never done in high school.”

For some students, working in the HIV/AIDS awareness area is a cathartic experience. Before moving to Dorchester, Mass., with her family three years ago, Faith Nwaoha (CAS’12) lived in Nigeria. “In my country, AIDS is a huge problem,” she said. “Children are dying from it every day. Volunteering with FYSOP is a way for me to share their pain and do something good.”

Like Nwaoha, Ben Weinberg (ENG’12) of Southbury, Conn., chose to participate in the HIV/AIDS area for personal reasons. “Several years ago, my dad’s best friend died from AIDS-related complications,” he said. “He never even told anyone he was sick, and when it got bad, he just fled. My dad was devastated. There’s still a stigma attached to AIDS, and I’m going to do what I can to help dispel it.”

Vicky Waltz can be reached at vwaltz@bu.edu.

This story originally ran September 3, 2008. 

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