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Community Fellows Make a Difference in Local Nonprofits

Frank Najarro ‘18 is spending his summer at Vassar Farm preaching the importance of good nutrition to children and other visitors to the Poughkeepsie Farm Project, an agricultural cooperative on the property. Elijah Mondesir ’16 is helping to run a summer day camp for about 50 youngsters in the City of Poughkeepsie. Sylvia Kang ‘16 is offering her administrative and counseling skills to a local agency that provides a safe haven to women who have fled from abusive relationships.

Najarro, Mondesir and Kang are part of a team of 11 Vassar students enrolled this summer in the college’s Community Fellows program. Now in its 18th year, the program matches students’ skills and interests with the needs of local not-for-profit agencies. Each of the students is paid a stipend by the college. Nicholas de Leeuw, Vassar’s acting director of field work, says the program enables the students to gain hands-on experience working with clients and employees of agencies that are providing vital services to the community.

“The Community Fellows program is an intense learning experience for our students,” de Leeuw says. “Every one of them has been handed responsibilities beyond what they anticipated. Those who are working for agencies where they have already done field work during the school year have moved up to supervisory duties, while others have been thrown into something entirely new as a key member of a team.”

Najarro, a native of Guatemala who moved to Sioux Falls, SD, when he was eight years old, says he loves spending his summer on a working farm teaching others about the health benefits of the fruits and vegetables that are grown there. “A big part of my job is explaining to kids what we eat and what we should be eating, and there aren’t many things more important than that,” he says.

Najarro says he especially relishes the challenge of convincing children to try foods they’ve never eaten before. “One of the best days I had on this job was visiting an elementary school in Poughkeepsie and hosting an all-day program on nutrition,” he says. “I asked 600 kids to try some new vegetables, and 598 of them did it – and they liked it.”

Najarro says most of the children who visit the farm have only a vague idea where their food comes from. “I really believe introducing kids to the importance of eating fresh vegetables is making a difference in their lives,” he says.

Lee Anne Albritton, executive director of the Poughkeepsie Farm Project, says Najarro is making significant contributions to the agency’s programs. “He interacts really well with high schoolers – and they’re not always an easy group – but he’s just as at ease with three-year-olds,” Albritton says. “It’s been a huge help to us having someone here for 40 hours a week who is so enthusiastic and who is getting in-depth knowledge of what we do and how we do it.”

Mondesir asked to work at the summer day camp run by R.E.A.L. Skills of Poughkeepsie because he had helped run the agency’s after-school activities since his sophomore year through Vassar’s field work program. Agency director Tree Arrington says he was “ecstatic” when he learned Mondesir would be working there full-time all summer. “Elijah is intellectually gifted, but he’s also really connected to our kids,” Arrington says. “Ever since he came here three years ago, he’s thrown his heart and soul into what he does, and this summer he made a new contribution: he re-structured our academic program.”

Mondesir says that while he was working with some of the children during the school year, he noticed many of them were having trouble with some math and reading concepts. So he decided to tailor the summer curriculum to focus on those trouble spots. “A lot of the kids were having difficulty with multi-digit multiplication, and others were struggling with some grammar issues,” Mondesir says. “I made some changes in our summer classes to help them be ready for these things when the school year begins.”

Mondesir says he tries to stress the importance of education as a way for the children to escape the poverty many of their families are facing. “I grew up in a family of modest means in St. Croix, and my parents always valued education,” he says. “I try to instill that in the children here.”

Another administrator at R.E.A.L. Skills says Mondesir’s message is getting through. “He has an intuitive ability to bond with the children,” says administrative director Gold Wilkerson. “Not everybody has that ability to click with kids. Elijah has it.”

Kang, a psychology major whose family lives in China, is handling a variety of tasks at Grace Smith House, a shelter for women fleeing from domestic violence. She says she’s learned a lot in a short time. “When I first started the job, I was scared to answer the hotline phone,” she says. “Recently, I answered a call on the hotline, convinced the woman to come here, and did her intake interview when she arrived and I’m helping to handle her case.” 

Because the agency is small and funds are scarce, almost everyone at the shelter handles multiple tasks. Kang spends part of her day answering hotline calls or working with clients and other parts doing administrative chores. She says she likes working with the rest of the staff, but she especially enjoys getting to know the women who are being served by the agency. “I love attending the support groups and listening to the discussions there,” Kang says.

Sandra Vacchio, Grace Smith House’s human resources coordinator, says Kang is making a big difference in the lives of the clients. “We’re a small agency that’s constantly struggling with our budget, so we truly appreciate the kind of help Sylvia is providing.”

Kang says the experiences she has shared this summer with the clients and staff have convinced her to continue to work at the shelter during the coming school year. “The way these women bond with each other and share their stories is inspiring.” she says. “I’m constantly amazed at how strong they are.”

--Larry Hertz