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Pitching in at Local Non-Profits

Susie Martinez ’15 is spending her summer working – and playing – with young people at a local community center. Ishan Desai-Geller ’15 is helping a not-for-profit agency raise money and publicize its programs. Ariadne Skoufos  ’16 is teaching a group of disabled adults how to feed and care for animals on a farm just outside Poughkeepsie. Martinez, Desai-Geller and Skoufos are part of a team of 11 Vassar students enrolled for the summer in the college’s Community Fellows program, which provides full-time employees to agencies that perform a variety of services in the Poughkeepsie area.

Susie Martinez ’15 and day campers at the Catharine Street Community Center

Now in its 17th year, the program matches students’ skills and interests with the needs of the agencies. Some, like Martinez, are doing hands-on work with the agencies’ clients while others are learning how the agencies obtain the resources to  provide vital services to low-income families, the disabled, victims of domestic violence and others.

Peter Leonard, Vassar’s director of field work, says the program benefits the students and the college as well as the local agencies. “The Community Fellows program provides students with a component of their education they can’t get on campus,” Leonard says. “The students benefit financially, but the real benefit is what they learn from the people at these agencies – both the staff and their clients. The goal of the program is to have our students do inspirational work, and they do.”

Martinez, an urban studies and Japanese double major from the Bronx, says she enjoys the variety of the work she does at the Catharine Street Community Center, which runs a summer day camp for youngsters ages 6 to 11. “There are agencies like this where I grew up, so working here seemed like a natural thing to do,” Martinez says. “It’s a small staff, so we all do a little bit of everything.”

Ishan Desai-Geller ’15 (center) with Nestor Madalengoitia (left) and Family Services Director Brian Doyle

Part of her day is spent organizing games and monitoring the children in the playground and part is devoted to helping them with math and writing skills. “I try to make the learning fun,” she says. “The other day, we played ‘multiplication Bingo,’ and it got a good reception.”

Martinez, who lives in a Hispanic neighborhood in the Bronx, says she converses regularly with parents of the first-generation Mexican-American children who attend the day camp. The center’s director, Shirley Adams, says Martinez’s language skills are particularly helpful. “Nearly 40 percent of our children live in predominantly Spanish-speaking households, and Susie is an excellent role model for all of the children,” Adams says. “She lets them know learning is ‘cool’ and they all want to be like her when they grow up.”

Desai-Geller, a political science major from West Hartford, CT, works for Family Services, a multi-faceted agency that provides support for crime victims, runs recreational programs for children and teens and job-training and counseling for teens and young adults. Desai-Geller is doing most of his work in the office, helping with fund-raising appeals, writing press releases, and carrying out other publicity assignments. He says he’s learning how not-for-profit agencies raise the money they need to carry out their missions. “In the past, I’ve been on the front lines doing hands-on volunteer work,” Desai-Geller says. “This summer I’m learning how an organization works from the inside.”

He says one of his most gratifying tasks was helping to organize the public unveiling of a series of murals painted by young people and overseen by Peruvian artist Nestor Madalengoitia inside the building in Poughkeepsie where Family Services and more than a dozen other agencies are located. “It’s a project I helped launch and one I saw through to the end,” he says. “The people who come here for services are under a lot of stress, and maybe these colorful images brighten their day and make their tasks here a little easier. I’m a big believer in art that’s accessible to the community.”

Ariadne Skuofos ’16 with a client at Briggs Farm

Family Services executive director Brian Doyle says Desai-Geller has made significant contributions to the agency. “Ishan has been asked to perform an array of functions, and there are times when some of those tasks are mundane. But as talented and creative as Ishan is, he has also cheerfully rolled up his sleeves to stuff envelopes if that is the task at hand. His talents have been put to good use in ways that will endure long after his 10-week stint here is complete.”

Skoufos, an urban studies major from Old Lyme, CT, says she’d never spent much time with chickens, donkeys, and goats until she joined the staff of New Horizons, an agency that provides services for developmentally disabled children and adults. Skoufos does clerical work at New Horizons headquarters two days a week and spends the rest of her time at a working farm operated by the agency, where the clients pitch in with gardening and the care and feeding of more than a dozen animals that live there. She says the work has been fun and gratifying.

“When I started the job, I had no idea what to expect, but it’s certainly far exceeded my expectations,” Skoufos says. “I work in the office, and I work directly with the clients so I get to experience both sides of the organization. When we go to the barn to feed and care for the animals, everyone is happy and excited.”

She says she has been particularly impressed with the enthusiasm of the men and women she works with. “This morning we were doing an art project with glitter and glue, and they all commented on each other’s work. It was fun to see their imaginations at work and to see their sense of accomplishment. And I love watching them interact with the animals. They have such enthusiasm when they do their chores.”

-- Larry Hertz