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It Takes a Campus

While Vassar students, faculty and staff prepared for the holidays with their own families this year, many were also making sure the season would be a little brighter for some in the Poughkeepsie area.

Alice O'Keefe, of the Vassar Field Work Office, poses with some of the 200 gifts she collected for children of local migrant farm workers. Photo by John Abbott

Many sports teams, house teams and college staff “adopt” individual families, collecting, wrapping and delivering presents, while others in the Vassar community reach out to larger groups of children or adults who are facing financial difficulties or health issues.

As she has done for the past 25 years, Alice O’Keefe of the Field Work Office collected gifts for children of migrant farm workers in the area. More than 200 toys, books, and clothing items were donated this year. “It’s something I decided to do because it seemed to me that migrant families were largely forgotten during the holidays,” O’Keefe says. “It’s heartwarming to see the generosity of so many students and staff. It’s what makes me feel the best about this time of the year.”

Ruth Faircloth, events coordinator for the Hudson Valley office of the Rural and Migrant Ministries, says O’Keefe’s ongoing support means a lot to the migrant families. “What Alice and others at Vassar do every year makes such a difference to these families – you can see it in their children’s eyes on Christmas morning,” Faircloth says.

ProHealth , a student organization that raises awareness about local and global public health issues, collected toiletries for families affiliated with the Catharine Street Community Center in the City of Poughkeepsie. About 15 students publicized the initiative on campus and delivered hundreds of items, such as toothbrushes, toothpaste, deodorant and infant hygiene products.

ProHealth president Lena Josephs ’16 says the group decided to collect toiletries because they are not included in items that can be purchased with food stamps. Josephs says the response from the Vassar community was heartwarming. “We received many more donations than we expected and really feel this is something that will make a difference in many families’ lives,” she says.

Linda MacIsaac, program compliance specialist at Catharine Street, says she and others at the community center were grateful for the donations. “Historically, the Catharine Street Community Center has served families that are facing difficult times economically, and receiving these toiletries will certainly enhance their budgets at this time of year,” MacIsaac says. “It’s wonderful that these Vassar students recognized this need.”

Students and staff of the Vassar Food Committee baked 20 apple pies and delivered them to a soup kitchen run by Beulah Baptist Church in the City of Poughkeepsie. Maureen King, senior director of campus dining, and Food Committee chair Andrew Eslich ’17 said they learned about the church’s food program from All Campus Dining Center kitchen worker Viola Carter, a member of the church. “Viola’s involved in running the soup kitchen, and she’s retiring from Vassar this month, so we thought this would be a good thing to do to honor her,” King says.

Eslich also helped collect and distribute more than 300 books and other gifts for 77 kindergarten students at W. W. Smith Elementary School, where he and other students serve as tutors for the Vassar English Language Outreach Program (VELOP). Lucy Ellis ’17, a co-organizer of the event, says she and other tutors hatched the idea after they attended a book fair at the school and a teacher mentioned that many immigrant children didn’t have many books in their homes. “It’s the first time we’ve done something like this at the school, but we hope it becomes a Vassar tradition,” Ellis says.

Staff members of the Office of Alumnae/i Affairs and Development purchased phone cards for elderly and disabled veterans at Castle Point Veterans Administration Medical Center in nearby Fishkill. OAAD office specialist Carolyn Joseph, who organized the event, delivered 58 phone cards, worth $5 each, enough for every resident and many outpatients. Each phone card was enclosed in a greeting card signed by a member of the OAAD staff.

Joseph says the staff had made donations to the national Wounded Warrior project in past years but decided to do something closer to home this year. “I just thought it would be nice for these veterans to be able to call home for the holidays,” she says. “There’s a personal connection for me – my dad was a soldier in the army in the Battle of the Bulge in World War II.”

In what has been an annual event for more than a decade,  members of the men’s and women’s soccer teams and the women’s golf team visited several hospitals and nursing homes, singing holiday songs and handing out presents. The visits are arranged by John Flowers, a Poughkeepsie resident who has organized them for local residents, church groups, and civic organizations for more than 20 years.

The Vassar students joined the effort in 2004 after a member of the men’s soccer team met Flowers during an internship and mentioned it to Coach Andy Jennings. “We decided it was something we ought to be doing, and the women’s soccer team and golf team joined us a few years later,” Jennings says. “I always tell the players that it’s a privilege to go to a school like Vassar, and this kind of giving back is fundamental to who they should be and what they represent.”

--Larry Hertz

--Photos ©Vassar College-John Abbott