Nurturing the community: MCLA Volunteer Center builds on existing work with new programs, virtual connections

MCLA Smith House

Before the pandemic, the MCLA Volunteer Center was running regular weekly programs, with participation from more than 200 student volunteers and community members. The COVID-19 pandemic forced it to pivot, but the staff and student volunteers rose to the occasion, expanding food pantry access, developing virtual programming, and keeping as much of its usual activities going as possible despite pandemic restrictions.

“We’ve been able to expand our geography,” said Spencer Moser, MCLA’s director of civic and community engagement. “Now, we have an opportunity to connect with people from all over the world, as well as do hands-on work. When we come out of this, we’ll be that much more poised, ready, and available to do more of these things in a dynamic way.”

Some notable activities from the 2020-21 academic year: 

2019 Day of ServiceMCLA students at the April 2019 Community Day of Service. 

Food Pantry access expansion

Student volunteers Shelby Dempsey ’21 and DeAnna Wardwell ’22 developed an online pick-up service that students can access via an online form. Students choose a time to pick up their food order, and the pantry’s student coordinators managed pickups. “It’s an excellent way for us to follow social distancing guidelines while also ensuring students are getting the food they need,” Dempsey said.

Food Pantry Coordinator Meaghan Murphy ’21 worked to established a Canvas page, which sends quick announcements, helps qualifying students learn about benefits like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistant Program (SNAP) and rent assistance, as well as a list of resources that includes every local food pantry in Berkshire County and Massachusetts and nearby New York locations, free tax help, and other services. “Those of us managing the pantry felt it was the next, obvious step in what we can provide to the student body. We may not be experts in things like SNAP, but we can connect them with people who are,” said Moser.

New volunteer programs

In addition to legacy programs like LEAD Academy, which is entering its 17th year, student volunteers regularly develop community programs, including Berkshire Buddies, a Facebook-based group for local school children run by Kaylea Nocher ’21 that connects pen pals, writes notes of kindness for local community members, and organizes other positive activities for children and families, and the MCLA Mentoring Program, in which MCLA students virtually mentor school children in the Berkshires, New York, and Boston, run by Emma Marino ’24. Melanie Davis ’22 ran a weekly virtual theater program for young children living in her hometown of Sandwich, Mass., where they learned the basics of acting and costume design.

MCLA students are volunteering with Pathways, connecting with local high school students to encourage them to pursue higher education. Students are also developing a leadership skills program for their peers, which will support students in learning effective leadership, teamwork, and communication skills and applying them to real situations.

Spring Days of Service

In early spring, dozens of people asked to sign up for Day of Service activities before the Volunteer Center had a chance to post details about programming. When the College made the decision to pivot to a remote semester in April, the Volunteer Center pivoted as well.

Community Engagement Coordinator Christopher Hantman ’14 adapted programming for the day and encouraged students to volunteer in their own neighborhoods. Hantman and the Volunteer Center staff also provided plenty of virtual options, including opportunities for dialogue around the importance of citizenship, voting, and advocating for marginalized populations.

“Our intent now is that these programs also carve out time to talk to participants about volunteerism and civic engagement, voting, and public office,” said Moser. “It’s lit a fire around our interests in having discourse and dialogue around why it’s really important that we engage with our community, and our public officials, and start to look at the spectrum of engagement, from volunteerism to social change through advocacy,” Moser said.

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