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Community Fellows Roll up Their Sleeves

Tori Salomani ’18 is spending the summer working with business owners and residents in a five-block neighborhood in the City of Poughkeepsie that is undergoing revitalization. Anthony Walker ’18 and Sophie Kosmacher  ’17 are running education programs and tending gardens at the Poughkeepsie Farm Project, an organic farming cooperative on the Vassar campus. Andrea Orejarena ‘17 is using her expertise in photography and filmmaking to chronicle the struggles of migrant farmworkers.

Salomani, Kosmacher, Walker and Orejarena are part of a team of Vassar students enrolled this summer in the college’s Community Fellows program. Now in its 19th 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 deLeeuw,  Director of Field Work at Vassar, says the program enables students to gain hands-on work experience while strengthening the college’s ties with the community. “Our students do important work for these agencies and, in turn, the program pulls some bricks out of the wall that sometimes separates the college from the community,” deLeeuw says.

Salomani, an urban studies major from Kingston, NY, is working with AmeriCorps volunteers and the staff of Hudson River Housing, Inc., a local not-for-profit agency, on a neighborhood improvement project called Middle Main. Once largely abandoned, the five blocks of Main Street on the eastern end of the city have undergone a re-birth, thanks in part to the infusion of state and federal funds for building renovations and community organizing initiatives.

One of Salomani’s principal tasks this summer is soliciting suggestions and opinions  from hundreds of residents and business owners about how the revitalization is progressing. She’s asking them to comment on the delivery of municipal services, such as trash removal, street cleaning, and fire and police protection. “Most of the people I’ve talked to are hopeful, but some are not totally convinced the effort is successful,” Salomani says.  The data she gathers will be used in future state and federal grant applications. 

Salomani also takes part in neighborhood cleanup projects and helps AmeriCorps volunteers organize street festivals and other community gatherings. Recently, she helped build a Middle Main float for a Fathers Day parade down Main Street.

Salomani says the work she’s doing is sometimes frustrating but often gratifying. “I visited one local business three or four times, and was told each time to come back some other time,” she says. “When I finally met the owner and let her know about the marketing materials Middle Main could provide for her business, she was really grateful. We’ve become good friends since then.”

Walker, a geography major from Madison, WI, applied for the Community Fellows position at the Poughkeepsie Farm Project while he was doing field work there during the spring semester. “I worked here all spring, and I worked at a community garden in Wisconsin last summer,” Walker says, “so I was really excited to land a full-time job that gave me the opportunity to continue this kind of work. Everyone here is passionate about what they do. We’re all committed to making a difference in the community.”

Walker hosts visits to the farm by youth groups and community organizations, and every Wednesday he and others from the farm accompany a mobile food truck to underserved neighborhoods in Poughkeepsie.  “Recently, we had a glut of lettuce and kale for sale on the mobile market, so I made up some organic dressing  and gave out the recipe,” he says.

Walker says his interaction with young people is one of his favorite parts of the job. “I love working with kids; it’s so much fun to watch them gain an understanding of the importance of a good diet,” he says. “It’s great to see them become excited about it.”

Kosmacher, a philosophy major from Keene, NH, cultivates herbs in the farm’s Meditation Garden that are used for making medicines and salves, and she helps to operate the Community Garden, where local residents grow vegetables in their assigned plots. One of Kosmacher’s goals this summer is to organize an event that will bring these community gardeners together. “They’re out in the field working next to each other, but most of them don’t know each other,” she says.

Kosmacher says she’s been amazed how much she has learned about farming and gardening techniques since she began working there in early June. “The people who have these plots are so smart and so knowledgeable,” she says. “I’ve learned a lot in a very short time.”

In addition to expanding her knowledge of agriculture, Kosmacher says, she’s also learning a lot about community organizing. “It’s great to be part of an organization where everyone is passionate about promoting sustainable practices and about teaching those practices to others,” she says.

Orejarena, a cognitive science major from Colombia, is working for Rural and Migrant Ministry, a not-for-profit agency that has been advocating for farm workers throughout New York State since its founding in 1981. During the spring semester, Orejarena was volunteering for the organization through Vassar’s field work program when she learned about a 200-mile “March for Farmworker Justice” from Long Island to state government offices in Albany. When her final exams were over, she joined the farm workers and their advocates and walked with them for about 100 miles, taking photographs along the way.

This summer, Orejarena is editing and cataloguing some of the photographs she took and updating RMM’s brochures and websites. And every Friday, she travels to Newburgh, about 20 miles from the Vassar campus, to help run the agency’s Teen Arts program.  “I love what I do,” Orejarena says. “I enjoy making documentaries, and I’ve traveled to many farmworkers’ homes to talk with them about their struggles. No one has refused my request to photograph them; they appreciate the work we are doing.”

Vassar alum Katia Chapman ‘12, the agency’s education coordinator, says Orejarena has made significant contributions in a short period of time. “Before Andrea was able to join the 200-mile march, I was taking the photographs and was happy to turn that job over to her,” Chapman says. “Her photos and video footage are much more powerful than mine.”

Chapman says her own experience working for Rural and Migrant Ministry as a Community Fellow helped launch her post-Vassar career. “If I hadn’t begun this work as a Community Fellow in 2009, maybe I wouldn’t be here today, and I really enjoy what I do,” she says. “The program has helped a lot of students put some of the things they learn in the classroom into focus. It’s a way of weaving the tapestries of education and experience together.”

--Larry Hertz

Photos by Buck Lewis and Karl Rabe